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Culture is not a game

“Once you know the Codes, nothing will ever look the same again.”

This sweeping statement punctuates the end of my French reading. Without any context, this excerpt from Clotaire Rapaille’s The Culture Code feels like an authoritative enigma. You’re automatically sucked into his confident rhetoric, engrossed in this elusive Code he has managed to crack. Rapaille is a cultural anthropologist and a businessman, his language in the book clearly from the latter. He brazenly states that all the Fortune 100 companies have him on retainer for his profitable and proven anthropology knowledge.

When I began my French class, I became immediately attached to all the readings about subtle cultural gestures, like body language and speaking styles. It was fascinating to observe the world as a laboratory and see the content of those readings in real life. 

Next time you are in a group conversation, listen for its structure, its dynamic. For us freshmen, this will be especially prominent in those Which-dorm-are-you-in-I’m-in-Trinity-oOoOHhHtriNItY chats. It’s a bit like a game of basketball—someone will dribble the conversation, toss it in a direction for someone else to catch, that person catches it and passes it and so on. In other cultures, it’s common to interrupt and have a conversation more like rugby, where everyone is fighting for the ball (and it’s considered a compliment if a person interrupts you to challenge or ask you more!)

It was easy to glorify the insights presented in our readings (which ranged from academic articles to marketing books like Rapaille’s), because they were so easily observed. However, one section in The Culture Code struck a different type of chord.

Rapaille begins by explaining the concept of a Culture Code—it is each culture’s subconscious idea of a word or concept that is tied to childhood emotional imprinting. For example, when consulting with Chrysler to sell the new Jeep Wrangler, he realized that adding features that apparently satisfied what focus groups wanted out of a car (comfy seats, softer leather, better mileage) wasn’t actually improving sales. Instead, he figured out how to ask the right questions: What do you feel when you think of a Jeep? What was your earliest memory and the sights and sounds associated with this car? 

Through these questions, he was able to conclude that the American Code for Jeep was “horse.” If you look at American Jeep Wrangler commercials, they’ll often include images of the wild, with the Jeep galloping through rough terrain, headlights round like the eyes of a horse (where they were previously square). And guess what? It was a smash hit.

Now, Rapaille’s ideas do have merit (though the self-aggrandizing induces some eye-rolling). He has the ad campaigns and their respective monetary results to prove it. But the problem begins in his example of his work with Nestlé in Japan, to sell something distinctly un-Japanese: coffee.

When he tried to do the same emotional focus group experiment, there was an issue: Japanese beverage culture is tied to tea, so there was no emotional imprinting of coffee at all. The Japanese Code for coffee simply didn’t exist. You would think that maybe Nestlé would switch gears and perhaps, if they really wanted to sell coffee, market it in relation to tea, something that was already ingrained and had existing emotional imprints.

Rapaille, however, worked with Nestlé to go another route. They marketed coffee-flavored desserts to children to create a positive association with coffee, one which they could take advantage of in the future. Again, it worked. In the 1970s, there was only a very small market for coffee in Japan. Now, about a billion pounds are consumed annually.

When we discussed this in class, I found this to be both ingenious and manipulative, a long-game marketing scheme shrouded as a study in cultural anthropology. I was not the only one. We attempted to discuss the ethical implications of Rapaille’s work in broken French, but our vocabulary was pretty limited to ‘très intéressant’ (very interesting). 

Instead of adapting a marketing campaign to a country’s culture that Rapaille has apparently decoded in the name of science, we forced a seed of American culture. Here, no understanding, which is what the goal of anthropology should be, was gained nor sought. Profit was the only goal, and since what Rapaille and Nestlé learned about their target market didn’t fit into what they wanted, they simply made part of Japan’s culture into what they wanted.

The issue is that if we isolate just this one instance, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. It’s not as if Nestlé was forcing Japanese children to eat coffee-flavored desserts or making competitors take away tea-related food just to sell coffee. 

But it still feels wrong, because it is not just this one instance. And it’s not irrational for it to feel this way. If we dig deeper, past the idea of coffee versus tea, this speaks to a larger problem of insertion. My best friend is very passionate about anthropology, and she has said to me that one criticism she has of the field is that it is inherently colonialist. This area of research is generally supported by Western institutions that go and draw conclusions (and often criticize) non-Western cultures while never actually living or being invited to analyze them.

Problems arise when, like Nestlé in Japan, we analyze their culture, realize it doesn’t contain what we need to sell some products, and then proceed to insert Western ideas for the sole purpose of making a profit. Here, it is just coffee. But it’s been happening for decades, from fast food to cigarettes, both of which have proven to have a massive negative impact on health. So when does it stop?

That is a decision we, as students and academics, have to make. We have no more right to edit another culture just so we can sell them coffee any more than you can snatch someone else’s drawing and add a flower to it just because you like flowers. (Guilty. I was in preschool). If we lose the goal of empathy in our study of how people and cultures work, treating them as puzzles to decode and simplify, then we are no longer learners. We become exploiters.

Michelle Si is a Trinity freshman. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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