Is the commercialisation of culture necessarily a bad thing?

In the age of capitalization and increased power of money, countries all over the world are striving for the swiftest economic growth. To prioritize this practical way of thinking, many domains in life have become a product sold on the global market. The trade of ideas, products and even culture has put a monetary value which is sometimes reductive of the true value of it. As such, the commercialisation of tangible aspects of culture, which is tied to the heritage and roots of a community, has caused an outcry claiming this is the misuse of culture. However, at the same time, I can only agree that commercialization of culture is detrimental to a small extent. This is because of the soft power, economic benefits and increased significance it can achieve from commercialisation.

Firstly, critics of the commercialisation of culture argue that culture is something close to people’s hearts, thus it cannot be quantified by a mere monetary value. Making a cultural event such as festivals or performances a cold transaction dilutes the meaning of it. This is seen in Bali Indonesia, where cultural dances are mainly held to entertain tourists and repeated without observing the traditional dates or times that used to be practiced. This routinization in order to earn more profits has resulted in a lack of real cultural significance for the locals who are performing the dance. On the other hand, commercialization of culture through dance performances in Bali also aids in conservation efforts. With revenue generated from tourism, there is economic significance of culture in Bali. Hence, there is more focus placed on its conservation as well as more revenue generated for the country as a whole. Despite the fact that putting a price on culture at times reduces its meaning to the local community, this practical mindset is crucial to its survival. As governments, especially in developing countries like Indonesia, prioritise gross domestic product growth in order to satisfy the people’s basic needs, cultural conservation may take a backseat if it does not have any economic value.

Conversely, I feel that the commercialization of culture facilitates greater understanding of it. Often, commercial products are more likely to reach international consumers than private cultural events. A greater representation of culture in products that an average global citizen consumes would increase its reach on a global stage. When more people are exposed to a certain culture, which can be achieved through consumption of certain products or services, consumers would have greater understanding, if not appreciation, of that culture. Commercialisation is able to catapult lesser known cultures onto the global stages because of the attention firms want to generate to increase their own profits. For example, the Disney movie, Moana depicts a story of a girl living in a small cluster of Pacific islands. After the release of this film, Maori culture has attained greater recognition and greater understanding from many who reside in urban areas today. People are able to empathise with the Maori people who live near the ocean and have vastly different lifestyles from those in built-up cities through this film’s adaptation of Maori culture and mythology. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. At times, commercialization of another community’s culture can lack respect for it. This is seen in the severe backlash Khloe Kardashian faced when she posted a photograph of herself in Bantu knots on her Instagram account. Celebrities who capitalize on their image and influence on social media may come under fire for misusing another culture for monetary benefits, even if they claim that it was for more than just aesthetics. Hence, while commercialisation of culture can, ideally, springboard a culture into greater prominence or to increase representation of it in media, it could also be controversial and disrespectful towards certain communities.

Furthermore, commercialization of culture can increase a country’s soft power. The enormous amounts of commercial products available on the market is due to the mass production of many products leading to a loss of creativity and uniqueness. Cultural products, however, are authentic to a certain community or region which economic agents leverage on to differentiate their products. This act of pointing out the special features and differentiating qualities from others highlights the nuances of each culture. Commercialisation of culture can entice consumers to consume products from various cultures in a consumer-driven economy. This is also a diplomatic strategy which is used by countries. For instance, Thailand’s gastro-diplomacy, focuses on commercializing Thai culture through Thai food. Thai food has become a large umbrella commonly representing Tom Yum, Basil chicken and more importantly, the Thai culture. The high popularity of Thai cuisine can be seen in a growing number of food outlets dedicated to it and the acquired taste for this unique blend of spices in the world. Even though this might lead to reducing the various types of Thai food to only those that are more famous or popular, it has still managed to achieve the aim of expanding Thailand’s soft power to a large degree. Therefore, I believe that there is merit in commercialising culture as it largely influences the tastes and preferences of others.

In essence, culture is something that binds and represents a community. Although some parts of its identity have been simplified or diluted due to commercialisation as it becomes more like a transaction or a staged performance, yet it still maintains the main features symbolic to a certain community. Commercialisation of culture also generates income for the country, increases its global influences and allows the international community to acknowledge a culture and its community’s significance. Thus, commercialisation while ethically unappealing, is pivotal in a pragmatic world. If cultures could be commercialised without offending or disregarding the communities it represents, there would be more value generated. Hence, commercialisation of culture is not necessarily a bad thing but could be, if one is not careful.

Jessica Kosasih (19-A5)