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  • The Quest for National Identity and Visual Sovereignty in Trinidad and Tobago Television Advertising
  • Susan McFarlane-Alvarez (bio)

This paper looks at television advertising and its relation to national identity in Trinidad and Tobago. Both cinema exhibition and television programming in Trinidad and Tobago feature a predominance of North American fare. However, television advertising sometimes seeks to address the local audience through messages that appear indigenous. Through analysis of the text of a television commercial cited by audience members as authentically local and the social environment in which it was received, I explore advertising as a site of visual sovereignty in a mediascape otherwise minimally representative of the local.

“Everywhere, it seems, once-thriving national cinemas have been supplanted by Hollywood. How can this be?”

Michael Real (1996: 148)

“We need to find the Caribbean way of doing things, including the way we make films.”

Franklyn St. Juste (2000: 166)

In Trinidad and Tobago1 in July 2003, one television commercial stood out as an authentic representation of local culture. In this visual media environment where local representations of culture are dominated by North American visual texts, a representation such as the Guardian Life television commercial, The Ganges Meets the Nile, is widely accepted as authentically “local” without question. Closer analysis of the production and assembly of the Guardian Life television commercial, however, reveals important contradictions and contrasts regarding realities of mode of production, myths of national identity construction, and the significance of viewer identification with iconographic representations of national identity. Examination of the text and mode of production of this television commercial provides an opportunity to explore the following questions. How is national identity constructed in television advertising? How does the reality of production of this television commercial measure against the construction of national identity? What is the significance of this exploration for a broader discussion of identity construction in television advertising in the context of globalization?

This paper focuses on the intersection of advertising and film, considering television advertising as a form of cinema. I argue that in countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, where a developed local cinema is almost absent and the dominant media forms are predominantly imported North American television programming and motion pictures, television advertising merits serious analytical consideration. Scholars of Caribbean mass culture and media typically take cinema as their vantage point. While their studies address common themes in Caribbean cinema such as production struggles, identity formation, and cultural domination by the West,2 the subject of television advertising as a similar site of cultural contestation has been almost completely overlooked, although a few of these scholars consider the role of video and television program production in light of the absence of a developed local cinema.3 However, if as Michael Schudson notes in The Uneasy Persuasion, “television ads [are] powerful precisely because people pay them so little heed that they do not call critical defenses into play” (Schudson, 1984: 4), then television advertising—as one of the few media spaces that portrays representations of local culture in Trinidad and Tobago—can offer significant insights into Caribbean notions of identity and the production of that identity. Stuart Hall considers “the essence of ‘Caribbeanness’ . . . [something] which a Caribbean cinema must discover, excavate, bring to light, and express through cinematic representation” (Hall, 1992: 221). I argue, however, that given the overwhelming influx of foreign images and narratives into Trinidad and Tobago, it is in television advertising that the essence of Trinidadianness or Tobagonianness is sought.

My analysis draws heavily upon the work of Caribbean cinema scholar Keith Warner. In his book, On Location (2000), Warner used a combination of methodologies to explore cinema and film in the Anglophone Caribbean. Likewise, I use a combination of interviews and textual analysis of television commercials4. Interview participants included advertising agency executives, independent producers, an advertising agency television and radio producer, a newspaper columnist, an historian, the head of the University of the West Indies’ Centre for Creative and Festival Arts, and several representatives of the audience that views television advertising. I also interviewed Keith Warner. These executives, media practitioners, producers, and writers were interviewed in person whenever possible, or by email when personal interviews were not...