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  • Print Advertisements and Nation Making in Metropolitan Papua New Guinea
  • Robert J. Foster (bio)

Foster, Robert J. 1995. Print advertisements and nation making in metropolitan Papua New Guinea. In Nation Making: Emergent Identities in Postcolonial Melanesia, ed. by Robert J. Foster. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 151–181. Reprinted with the permission of The University of Michigan Press.

In May 1985, the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea passed the Commercial Advertising Act, initiated by Ted Diro. 1 According to this act, all commercial advertising in Papua New Guinea must be locally produced by local agencies employing local talent-designers, artists, models, and so forth. Infractions are to be treated as criminal rather than civil offenses.

Letters to the weekly Times of Papua New Guinea (hereinafter TPNG) by two critics of the act, both expatriate advertising managers, provoked responses from Moale Rivu, then executive officer for Diro. 2 “In a TPNG article on 12 April 1986, Rivu defended the act as a deliberate effort by the government to promote “nationalism” and “nation building.” He asked:

Is it any wonder that we still find it difficult to be self sufficient in such basic foodstuff as rice and peanut butter? When the Markham factory was in operation it had to compete against imported peanut butter whose agents on numerous occasions used ready-made ads from overseas to promote their products. That, in essence, is the bottom line in this debate on the Advertising Act.

Rivu’s nationalism was motivated by mainly economic concerns, the famous “bottom line.” It is hardly contentious, however, to maintain that advertising and mass consumption in general are inevitably deeply cultural matters. This is not only a question of cultural imperialism, of resisting “Coca-Colonization”— the flow of images and objects emanating from various dominant regional centers. It is equally a question of the instrumental effects of mass-consumption practices in nation making, that is, a question of the potential for advertisements to present constructs of “the nation” and perforce to define the terms of membership in “the nation.”

I address this broad question through a consideration of print advertisements taken from several sources: two newspapers, a billboard, and an in-flight magazine. How do these ads construct “Papua New Guinea” and “Papua New Guineaness”? How do these ads and the consumption practices that they publicize enable (if not exhort) the steadily growing population of school-educated, urban-dwelling, wage-earning citizens to imagine themselves as “Papua New Guineans”? To what extent is an emergent urban consumer culture implicated in the processes of nation making in Papua New Guinea (see Jourdan this volume)?

Advertising and “the Nation”

I use two complementary approaches in considering the relationships between advertisements and “the nation” - “the nation” understood here as an imaginative construct (see this volume’s introduction). The first approach emphasizes the sociocultural linkages brought about by the spread of mass-consumption practices. Social historians have long observed, for example, that the formation of an imagined national community in the United States during the late nineteenth century was co-eval with the birth of modern consumerism (Boorstin 1973; Bronner 1989; Ewen and Ewen 1982; Fox and Lears 1983). Department stores assembled within their palatial confines thousands of big-city dwellers; chain stores replicated these gatherings on a smaller scale in towns across the country; and mail-order catalogs functioned to connect the most remote farmer’s family to this expansive network of consumers. The proliferation of images and objects of mass consumption brought the most diverse audiences, including newly arrived immigrants, into not only a developing marketplace, but also an emergent set of shared understandings, memories, tastes, and habits.

The growth of an advertising industry figured largely in this process, inasmuch as advertisements mediated the anonymous encounter between buyers and sellers. Advertisements became important vehicles for the imagination of a community of consumers whose shared consumption practices and ideals put them in experiential unison with each other. Orvar Löfgren (1989a, 373) made this point in reviewing a history of American advertising in the 1920s and 1930s:

Reading the same ads, listening to the same radio personalities, or watching the same movies created a shared frame of reference for those...

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