Culture, Relativism, and Bank Ads

October 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The word values has become pretty much the property of conservatives, who take an absolutist position. Values tell us what’s right and wrong, and by God some things are just wrong. Abortion, gay marriage, Al Qaeda. And some things are just right. The War on Terrorism, Freedom, Democracy.

This view is neatly summed up in William Bennett’s phrase “moral clarity,” which stands strong against the wishy-washy liberal view called moral relativism. Sheesh, don’t get conservatives started on moral relativism. Here’s a guy on Glenn Beck’s show:
a certain segment of society who has been indoctrinated with a certain moral relativism. . . . And it quite frankly puts our civilization in danger.
Here’s Bill Bennett himself:
Most Republicans believe there are such things as objective values, things we can arrive at through reason, and discussion, and experience, and faith . . . A lot of liberals are still suffering from the relativism of the '60s and '70s. [Nice word choice – “suffering.”]
But for the past year HSBC has been banking on cultural relativism with their Different Values ad campaign.

Some of the ads give a pair of value-laden words (good, bad) with a picture for each. Then the pictures are switched. Papaya - good; chocolate cake - bad. Or is it the reverse? Same words, different pictures.

Other ads show the same picture, but with different value labels. What idea is triggered by this old convertible – Freedom? Status Symbol? Polluter?

(Click on the image for a larger view, and read the relativistic ad copy.)

(I especially like this one. Is having four kids the self-indulgence that comes with privilege, or is it sacrifice?)

The idea, neatly summed up in the tag line of the original ads is, “different values make the world a richer place.” OK, let’s forget about the intentional double meaning of richer. And maybe we should temporarily ignore the hypocrisy of HSBC, having gobbled up local banks, now coming out as the promoter of local values.

What the ad illustrates – and this is how I’ll use them in class next week when we start talking about culture – is the idea of culture as a “meaning system.” What something means depends on the culture of the people interpreting it – as in the shaved head ad.
Those interpretations are based in experience, and the experiences we have depend on where we are in the society – as in the computer/baby ad.

Or the carpet ad.

(Can we still call them “Oriental” rugs? I guess it depends on our culture. But if we can’t call them Oriental rugs, what are they?)

UPDATE. A few hours after I posted this yesterday, I went to Brooklyn for dinner with friends. Getting out of the subway, I glanced back at the skyline of Manhattan, the island much glorified (by some), much vilified (by others), and much gentrified. Then I started up Montague St., and one of the first things I passed was an HSBC bank with this ad inside.


PCM said...

Nice post.

Have you ever though about how strange it is that HSBC has those adds on probably every single jetway in the world? How did they do that?

And don't worry. Yes, you can still call them "oriental rugs" because the orient in this case is not an out-of-date and offense term for people from East Asian, but the geographic place west of where "Asian" people come from. The Orient is where the Orient Express went: a very bulging triangle somewhat between Istanbul, Damascas, and Baghdad. AKA: Asia Minor and the Middle East.

[There was and probably still is a Greek diner in or near Watertown, Massachusetts that proudly proclaims on its sign: "American and Oriental food." Now *that's* old school.]

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks PCM. But that diner -- if it's in Watertown, are you sure it's Greek and not Armenian?

PCM said...

The diner was Greek. But I can't find it anymore on Google Earth. A shame.

I was on my two-wheeled peddle-powered Orient Express to Watertown. I needed to go to an Armenian store to buy Greek feta.

It was the only place that sold real feta once they closed my Ethiopian store in the remodeling of Central Square in the late 1990s.

Here's to the Levant!

PCM said...

The New York Diner is still there!

But the sign is gone. Sigh.

Probably something about "oriental" confusing people or being offensive. Kids these days... [grumble grumble] no sense of history!

Too bad we don't use historically significant terms for geographic and cultural areas.

Instead, in the name of political correctness, we Americans have this strange habit of trying to hide our discomfort in talking about race by using geographic categories. The result is very confusing.

Think of all the people from Asia who we don't consider "Asian." Or Americans from (north or South) Africa who aren't "African-American." And the poor Caucasians in Russia face discrimination because they have darker skin.

Me? I'm a Greek/German with roots in the Ottoman Empire from what is now Albania whose grandfather came to America with an Italian passport.

Hmmm, maybe it's easier to just say "New Yorker." (Though I'm from Chicago.)

But I digress...

Anonymous said...

The way I remember it is: "oriental" is for things, "asian" is for people. So "oriental food" or "oriental rug" is fine, but saying "he's oriental" would get you some weird looks.

Winston Smith said...

This doesn't have much to do with moral relativism. What you seem to be interested in is some kind of descriptive pluralism about some kind of values, though not clearly moral ones. For example, neither the fruit/brownie ad nor the shaved head ad have anything at all to do with morality.

Cultural moral relativism is, roughly, the following view:

The fact that some culture, C, holds that some thing, x, is morally good makes x morally good.

That means that, if a culture accepts female genital mutilation, then FGM is morally right "for" that culture.

Almost no one actually accepts moral relativism--probably because it's an insane view.

Liberalism, for example, does not accept moral relativism. Rather, liberalism holds that there are certain universal human rights which are not to be violated, even by governments. Liberals typically hold that there is a large and inviolable private sphere into which governments (and other people) cannot justifiably intrude--and liberalism holds that this is true even if the majority in some culture rejects it.

The ads in question have nothing to do with relativism--rather, they just indicate a fairly unspectacular fact--that there are different ways of looking at some things. Or, perhaps, that the same thing (having no hair) can have different causes.

teeshirt mode said...

I love HSBC ads. I think they have very creative people working for them