Letter from Brazil: The Consuming Crisis

Returning to Brazil for five months as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer after an absence of seven years, I expected to see considerable change. Things happen rapidly in such a developing nation. And indeed Brazil today presents striking contrasts to the Brazil I knew for two years in the mid-1970’s. There has been a general amnesty, exiles have returned, and habeas corpus has been reestab­lished. The labor movement is growing, the press is free, and an independent Congress meets regularly. Direct elec­tions in 1982 for Congress and for state and municipal offices demonstrated the vitality of Brazil’s multiparty system. Opposition parties currently control the House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the Senate. The opposition also won 10 of the 23 state governor­ships, including the key states of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Minas Gerais. It is possible that the presidential election next year will be direct.

On the other hand, the economy, which was in rapid expansion in the 1970’s, is now in a state of crisis. Pro­longed recession and a $100 billion foreign debt combined with devastating floods in the south and drought in the northeast (no rain for over five years) have severely crippled the country. The rate of inflation isstaggering (recently as high as 160 percent), unemployment has filled the streets with vendors of everything from cheap manufactured items to individual cigarettes; in several parts of the country people are sacking food markets.

As I considered such changes and observed Brazilian society in general, this visit became, paradoxically, a revealing and unsettling education in American culture. The influence of the U.S. is very strong there and is often revealed in a distorted or exaggerated fashion. This is particularly true in the case of advertising. Television and magazine advertising in Brazil is slick, flashy, and high-powered. It often out­does its American models in technique and glamour, and consequently gives things an extra twist, another turn of the screw, which sometimes converts them into caricature. The erotic element in certain American jeans commercials, for example, becomes unabashed and pro­vocative nudity in the Brazilian counter­ parts. Snob appeal becomes appallingly blatant, especially when the wealthy blond in a cigarette ad is compared with the ragged black who sifts through garbage each day for morsels of food. The appeal of speed in automobile ads and of technological gimmickry in electronics and appliance ads—which are the common stock of American advertising—are pushed to an additional and disconcerting degree of exaggera­tion. Just as a caricature portrait puts the subject’s distinctive features in bold relief, Brazilian advertising makes the relief, Brazilian advertising makes the advertising (and, alas, of many aspects of American culture) embarrassingly apparent. My impression was much like that of a parent who, having become accustomed to his children’s barbaric table manners at home, is suddenly startled and humiliated while watching them eat in public.

Automobile advertising is a typical example. America’s love affair with the automobile seems an innocent flirtation compared with Brazil’s obsessive pas­sion. The large cities are jammed with cars. The newspapers have regular auto feature sections. And since mass owner­ship of cars is a relatively recent develop­ment in Brazil, one gets the impression of a nation behaving like a 16-year-old with his first car—constantly laying rubber and squealing around corners. Recent car commercials on American television have emphasized speed and maneuverability. Often the ads make a point of informing us that the car is on a test track or a highway officially cleared of traffic. Americans are accustomed to cars and advertising and recognize the element of fantasy, then, in all this. An American can be influenced to buy through the romantic sports car appeal and yet enjoy his car without living out the fantasy on local streets.

It is different in Brazil. There the commercials ignore the element of track or officially sanctioned highway. With spectacular photography and glamorous actors they show cars going even faster and more recklessly, sometimes on sidewalks and stairways. Many Brazilian drivers fail to discount the element of fantasy. It is much more the rule than the exception to see them speeding on crowded city streets, swerving from lane to lane, taking corners on two wheels, flashing by within inches of pedestrians. Even gentle and gracious people are suddenly transformed behind the wheel of a car into something like stuntmen for Smokey and the Bandit. Since the laws for physics are regularly defined during monitoring on its streets and elsewhere Brazil has the highest accident rate per capita in the world. In Sao Paulo, accord­ing to a Brazilian newscast, someone is run over by a car every 20 minutes. There are waiting lists for new fenders.

But even more alarming than the example of speed and recklessness provided by American movies and advertising is the general model of consumerism that we export. A certain car that in 1981 cost 433,000 cruzeiros now costs more than 3,700,000 cruzeiros. Consider the consequences when the example of American advertis­ing stimulates consumer appetites in a country with this kind of inflation, a country in which drought-stricken people are dying of starvation, a country in which many people are homeless and live out of garbage cans. Moreover, the consumer appetite is linked with the impatience for technological advance­ment that is creating environmental disaster. As a Brazilian columnist noted, Brazilians suffer from an incurable ailment: the overevaluation of everything foreign and the correlative under ­evaluation of their own things. He went on to point out the folly of a country at Brazil’s state of development, on the verge of bankruptcy, imitating America’s immoderate brand of consumerism.

It is hard to believe that the skyrocket­ing crime rate in Brazil is not linked with the increasing appetites and expecta­tions aroused by American-style adver­tising. Wherever I visited around the country, everyone had a personal robbery story to tell. One woman who told me such a story on Tuesday was fatally shot on a bus on Thursday by a thief demanding her jewelry. Veja, Brazil’s answer to Time, recently published an interview with David Ogilvy, “the father of advertising,” as they called him. When asked if it is advisable to expose people in underde­veloped countries to advertising for products most of them will not be able to buy, he answered, “I think that is some­thing for philosophers and politicians to decide. I am just an advertising man who knows how to sell products.” So there we are. 

I encountered much more anti-Amer­ican sentiment this visit. Perhaps it is partly a result of indebtedness; we seldom like people to whom we owe lots of money, particularly when the interest is gouging. Perhaps it is partly due to the increasing animosity throughout the world toward America’s alleged interventionist foreign policy. I am afraid it is easy to think of a number of reasons why Brazilians should think less of us, many of those reasons having as much to do with our image in the international press as with genuine grievances. But I wonder if one reason is not the values we export, the values expressed or implied in the popular music, advertising, television programming, and movies we send their way. They clamor for such stuff, or at least the promoters among them do, but there may be an only partly conscious resentment born both from the low quality of those values and the Brazilian self-disgust for being so vulnerable to them. In any case, I return to the United States with a heightened critical aware­ness of the dangers inherent in the cheap, self-indulgent, profligate, and morally debilitating characteristics of American mass culture. And I am even more deeply puzzled as to why the best things in our culture seem unexportable.