Pesticide contamination. Poverty. Global warming. Illiteracy. Deforestation. Cancer. Advertising.


Yes, advertising ranks right up there with the major evils of the world in the minds of many political activists and environmentalists, particularly those who subscribe to Dependency Theory.

Dependency Theory is the new kid on the block in the field of international economics, and it is embraced by many educated Latin Americans (dependistas). Subscribers to this theory argue that developing nations are dependent on an international capitalist system, and that the rich, developed Northern nations (Japan, the U.S., members of the European Community) who control the system take unfair advantage of the developing countries at every turn, thus keeping them economically anemic and shackled in class conflict, poverty, and environmental degradation.

Take the case of Brazil, for instance. Like most other Latin American countries, Brazil has a host of severe social, political and environmental problems: rain forest destruction, illiteracy, widespread hunger, rampant human rights abuses, severe urban air pollution, political corruption, water pollution, ad nauseam.

A dependista would argue that all these problems can be traced directly to Brazil's past as a Portuguese colony, a land whose people and natural resources were ruthlessly exploited by European "discoverers." This exploitation is carried on today, both by the chronically corrupt political system that sprouted in the footprints of the old Portuguese robber barons and by the corporations of the North, who see the country as a source of cheap labor and cheap materials and as a market for second-rate goods.

The dependista view holds that Brazil gets the short end of the stick in any economic deal with the North. They argue that Northern countries conspire to keep down the market prices of raw materials such as timber and sugarcane, thus forcing Brazil to sell off its precious natural resources at unfairly low prices. The North gets the benefit of cheap raw materials while Brazil is left with a dwindling rain forest and the pollution left over from activities such as strip mining.

In return for all this, the dependistas say, the Northern corporations buy up bargain-priced air time on Brazil's TV networks and bombard the impoverished, illiterate, advertising-naive populace with exhortations to buy Northern products. And the Brazilian people believe what they see in the ads, believe that these Northern goods will lead to modernity and happiness. Well-to-do Brazilians discard their cultural values in favor of the glamorous lifestyles they see advertised on TV, and they start to conspicuously consume high-priced, foreign-made goods like automobiles and champagne. The poor strive to emulate the rich and use their meager wages to purchase products like Coca-Cola and Lucky Strikes instead of healthy, low-cost foods like beans and rice or other necessities such as medicine. As Brazilians at all income levels buy foreign consumer goods (and buy into foreign advertising), more money is siphoned out of the country into the pockets of Northern corporate executives. And so more trees are chopped down, more land torn up and poisoned in a hunt for gold to pay for more unhealthy Northern goodies, and the vicious cycle continues.

But is this really what's going on in Brazil? Are TV ads really helping to destroy Brazil's environment, stunt its economy, ruin the health of its people and drown its local cultures? And, if the ads do cause damage, can the blame be laid squarely at the feet of Northern corporations, as the dependistas claim?

Well, the first element of the problem is television, and the Brazilians do watch quite a lot of it. Brazil's preeminent network, TV Globo, is one of the largest networks in the world; virtually everyone in the cities has a TV; in fact, some who have televisions do not have more necessary appliances such as refrigerators. Nightly Brazilian-made soap operas, telenovelas, have been hugely popular, and writers such as Alma Guillermoprieto have noted that the these shows have influenced Brazilians' social and political behavior. Furthermore, as Guillermoprieto also observed, the line between reality and TV fiction is blurry in the minds of many Brazilians, and so it is even more likely that Northern commercials, which (unlike the telenovelas) are specifically designed to influence consumer behavior, are even more likely to have an impact.

And the Brazilians are exposed to a huge number of advertisements during their favorite telenovelas, far more than would be allowed by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission; as advertising researchers Richard Tansey and Michael Hyman have noted, commercials take up about 25 percent of TV Globo's air time. So for every three minutes of soap opera, Brazilians see at least two thirty-second advertisements.

But, contrary to the dependista argument, these commercials aren't exactly a bargain for advertisers. In an article in the August 16, 1993 edition of The New Yorker, Jorge Adib, the managing director of TV Globo's international division, stated that the network charged advertisers the equivalent of $53,000 U.S. dollars for a 30-second spot during popular prime-time telenovelas. While advertisers have to shell out far more money to U.S. networks for ads shown during special programs such as the Super Bowl, $53,000 per commercial is hardly small change.

And since U.S. advertisers are willing to spend that kind of money to attract Brazilian consumers, obviously Northern goods are selling quite well down there.

So what are Brazilians buying? And are the products in question as damaging to the nation's economy, environment, and public health as the dependistas claim?

For one thing, Brazilians seem to love automobiles as much as Americans and Italians do. And while the social and economic effects of car buying and driving are hard to gauge (more on that later), automobiles definitely have negative environmental consequences.

The most obvious problem with cars is air pollution. According to annual monitoring reports from the United Nations Environment Programme, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo already have some of the worst air pollution problems in the world. Much of this pollution comes from coal-burning factories, but a significant portion comes from cars. Gasoline combustion produces a host of noxious chemical by-products, mainly hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN).

All these chemicals are components of photochemical smog, although as far as direct harm to human health is concerned, ozone and PAN do the worst damage; both chemicals are toxic at very low levels, causing lung irritation that can be fatal for people with asthma or emphysema. Plants are even more sensitive to ozone and PAN, and the chemicals can cause serious crop losses to farmers who have fields near urban areas.

Hydrocarbons such as methane and nitrogen oxides do more than contribute to smog, however. Methane is a known "greenhouse gas" that can contribute to global warming. Nitrogen oxides mix with atmospheric water to create fish- and tree-killing acid rain.

The particular composition of Brazilian gasoline creates other problems. Lead, a heavy metal that causes mental retardation in children and neurological problems in adults, is still used as an additive to prevent "knocking." Brazil uses a 20% alcohol/80% gasoline mixture in an effort to reduce oil imports, but unfortunately the annual production of the sugarcane-derived alcohol creates about 100 to 120 billion liters of vinhoto, a pollutant that interferes with water's ability to carry oxygen, thereby killing fish and other aquatic animals. Furthermore, many social activists and environmentalists worry that the fields used to grow sugarcane for alcohol production would be better used to grow food crops for Brazil's hungry populace.

The disposal of certain automobile parts causes other pollution problems. The main problem comes from cars' lead-acid batteries, which are difficult to recycle properly and are more likely to be carelessly dumped in fields or roadsides where they disintegrate and contaminate the ground with lead. Tire disposal presents another problem, not only in the landfill space they take up but because tire piles are notorious for catching fire. Such fires are long-burning, hard to put out (fire fighters usually have to use chemicals that are themselves potentially dangerous pollutants) and produce plenty of thick, black smoke and noxious fumes.

Automobiles are beyond the financial reach of many Brazilians; environmental researcher Roberto Guimaraes estimated that only 8% of the people own cars. However, Brazil has a big population, and the wealthy and middle class are buying autos at a great rate. In fact, an article in the May 16, 1994 edition of Advertising Age dealt with an unusual problem for General Motors: the Brazilians loved GM's Corsa, a sleek $7,000 subcompact, so much that people were buying them faster than GM could make them. In response to this overwhelming demand for and subsequent shortage of the little cars, GM launched a $1.5 million TV ad campaign that featured General Motors do Brasil Vice President Andre Beers urging consumers to wait a few months before they went out to buy a Corsa.

A big Northern-owned corporation telling customers to not buy its product? This seems to fly in the face of the dependista assertion that corporations are interested solely in economic rape and pillage. On the other hand, one could argue that GM was simply exercising good business sense, trying to keep the price of the Corsa down so they could sell more cars and make more money in the long run.

At any rate, Brazilians buy a lot of cars, all of them from foreign owned companies. According to the aforementioned Advertising Age article, Brazilians purchased 869,170 cars in 1993: 325,629 came from Autolatina's Volkswagen division, 217,714 from General Motors do Brasil and 209,071 from Fiat, and the remaining 116,756 car sales were to other Northern companies such as Chrysler and Volvo. Economy-priced cars like the GM Corsa comprised 40% of all the car sales. Brazil has no nationally-owned car companies, although they have a few companies that make auto accessories, such as Companhia Siderurgica Belgo Mineira, which produces steel auto parts, and Pirelli Pneus, the world-renowned tire manufacturer.

This situation seems to follow with the dependista argument that the North is dominating the Brazilian market and siphoning money out of the country. However, one also has to consider the fact that General Motors do Brasil and Autolatina Volkswagen have manufacturing plants within the country. Thus, the major portion of the cars Brazilians buy are made by Brazilians, and so a portion of the proceeds of the car sales are cycled back into the country in the form of worker wages and local executive salaries. By the same token, a Brazilian auto assembly line worker makes far less money than his or her U.S. counterpart, so no doubt GM and Volkswagen pocket a tidy profit, but it is not the wholesale thievery that many dependistas depict.

And, going back to the advertising element of the situation, it turns out that many of the people who make the ads that sell the cars are in fact Brazilians. Multinational corporations are becoming more and more culturally savvy; they know that nobody knows a market like the people in that market. According to Advertising Age, GM's price-control Corsa ads were created by Colucci & Associados Propaganda, and Fiat also uses local advertising talent to produce their Brazilian commercials. So, when you come down to it, Brazilians are equally if not more responsible for the images and ideas projected in the commercials than are the Northern corporate executives who run the companies from afar.

In fact, the state of Brazilian advertising as a whole contradicts the dependista argument that Latin American governments are helpless to counteract the effects of Northern advertising. The largest single advertiser on Brazil's airwaves is not one of the multinational corporations -- it's the Brazilian government. In 1984, media researcher Sergio Mattos found that Brazil spent over a billion dollars in media advertising every year, and most of that went to purchasing TV air time. The Brazilian government has never hesitated to use TV to promote its agendas, and so one would think that if it objected to the content or message of the ads Northern companies broadcast over TV Globo, the government would not hesitate to do something about it.

After all, up until 1985 TV Globo was a puppet of the Brazilian government (this contradicts the dependista claim that Latin American media outlets are controlled by the North), and researchers such as Sergio Mattos and Joseph Straubhaar believe that the government consistently shielded the network from unwanted Northern influence.

Brazilian television got started in 1950 and was based directly on U.S. models. And, as in the U.S., at first only rich Brazilians could afford TVs, and because there were so few viewers most programs were made in Brazil. But in the late 50s, the cost of television sets started to go down, and by that time TV had become a status symbol, a way to show one was modern, even if one was illiterate.

With the increasing viewership and increasing potential for profit, Brazilian media mogul Roberto Marinho decided to found a new network, TV Globo, in 1962. Though Marinho ran other successful media enterprises such as the newspaper O Globo, he decided that TV was too new to risk running it alone. So he signed a deal with Time-Life Corporation in which Time-Life agreed to provide financial backing and technical assistance in exchange for a share of TV Globo's future profits. However, in 1964 the military took control of the government, and although the regime was nominally U.S.-friendly, it decided the deal between Time-Life and TV Globo was of questionable legality. In 1968, the deal was called off, and although TV Globo paid back Time-Life's loans (essentially interest-free) by 1971, the Brazilian network gained far more from the deal than did the U.S. conglomerate. In fact, Time-Life's financial advisor Joseph Wallach, who helped set up TV Globo's financial and corporate organization, defected to Globo, obtained Brazilian citizenship, and became a Globo executive.

The whole episode between TV Globo and Time-Life turns the standard dependista depiction of North-South economic deals inside out. Because of TV Globo's maneuvering in the Time-Life deal, by 1968 the network was clearly the dominant force in Brazilian television.

The Brazilian government continued to dominate TV Globo, however. The military use the network to present a peaceful, homogenized picture of Brazil to the people. TV was used as an electronic sedative; the dictatorship censored anything that might prove to be the least bit inflammatory.

Because the U.S. was on friendly terms with the regime, canned American shows dominated the airwaves for a time. But in the 1970s the military, apparently gripped with a new nationalistic ideology, encouraged TV Globo to develop local programming, and the U.S. imports began to be phased out. Soon, Brazil was exporting its home-grown shows, and by 1984, 90 other countries were buying TV Globo programming.

In 1985, Brazil went through a period of political upheaval, and the military dictatorship crumbled, but TV Globo skillfully avoided being pulled down with it. In fact, the network was instrumental in the election of the new president, who, unfortunately, proved to be almost as corrupt as the military who preceded him.

And that essentially captures the true nature of Brazil's problems: the worst threats to her environment, economy and public health come from within the country. As writers such as Alma Guillermoprieto and Roberto Guimaraes have documented, even now that Brazil has a democratically elected government, politicians still lead the country into environmentally disastrous projects such as the Trans-Amazon Highway Project (which hugely increased the rate of rainforest destruction), refuse to deal with social problems constructively (witness the government's decision to "clean up" Rio for the 1992 UN environmental conference by rounding up and shooting street children) and steal public monies with impunity. Whatever negative impact Northern TV commercials have, it is a bit like a bad case of ringworm in comparison to the metastasizing lung cancer that is Brazilian government.

Of course, ringworm is ringworm, and Northern corporations try to make money as they can in the Brazilian marketplace. But dependistas cannot claim that this is a sign of a Northern conspiracy to keep the country economically subservient. After all, those corporations try to take any advantage they can within their own countries' markets, with the same potential for damage. U.S. communications researchers regularly debate the ethics of advertising practices in this country. While people have called for increased regulation of commercials (again, a power that the Brazilian government has mostly chosen not to exercise), nobody has seemed willing to hold advertising designers and marketers to any kind of professional moral code, as are other communicators such as newspaper reporters (but this is a subject best explored in another writeup).

So, there is no evidence to indicate that Brazil has been singled out for Northern oppression via TV commercials. But even if the country was subject to some kind corporate conspiracy, it is still Brazilians who design and produce a significant portion of the commercials, and so the Brazilian people must share a portion of the blame for whatever harm befalls them and their country as a result of those ads.

And on a more basic level, Brazilians must take responsibility for their consumer choices. Businesses sell what they think people want to buy. If the Brazilians decide they want to buy into a wasteful consumer culture they will indeed suffer negative consequences. Their forests will continue to burn, their urban air will get worse, their children will suffer from malnutrition and environmental diseases. By the same token, though, if the Brazilians refuse to buy Pampers and Marlboros and Corsas and demand healthier, more environmentally-sustainable products, then that is what corporations will sell them.

And if the Brazilians are too advertising-naive, too enamored of Northern lifestyles to choose the road to sustainable development, it is not the job of General Motors or Volkswagen to give them the right map.

That duty belongs to the dependistas and other concerned Brazilians; they are the ones who must work to see that their people get the education they need to make the right social, environmental and political choices. They are the ones who must help the Brazilians take ownership of their country's problems and learn to master their own government. It will be extremely difficult to do all this, of course, and enlisting the help of TV Globo's executives is vital, but if Brazil is to develop properly, it must be done.

Of course, it's a lot easier for Brazilian dependistas to stay in their universities and non-profit organizations writing angry essays about Northern advertisers. It's easy, and it won't help their country very much at all.


Besas, Peter. "Globo Grabs the TV Jackpot in Brazil." Variety, Vol. 346 No. 10, March 23, 1992, p. 82.

Bunce, Nigel. Environmental Chemistry. Wuerz Publishing Ltd., 1991.

Guillermoprieto, Alma. "Obsessed in Rio: Letter from Brazil." The New Yorker, Vol. 69 No. 26, August 16, 1993, pp. 44-56.

Guimaraes, Cesar, and Roberto Amaral. "Brazilian Television: a Rapid Conversion to the New Order" in Media and Politics in Latin America: The Struggle for Democracy, Elizabeth Fox, ed. Sage Publications, 1988, pp. 125-137.

Guimaraes, Roberto P. The Ecopolitics of Development in the Third World: Politics and Environment in Brazil. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Mattos, Sergio. "Advertising and Government Influences: The Case of Brazilian Television." Communications Research, Vol. 11 No. 2, April 1984, pp. 203-220.

Straubhaar, Joseph D. "Brazilian Television: The Decline of American Influence." Communications Research, Vol. 11 No. 2, April 1984, pp. 221-240.

Tansey, Richard, Michael R. Hyman and George M. Zinkhan. "Cultural Themes in Brazilian and U.S. Auto Ads: A Cross-Cultural Comparison." Journal of Advertising, Vol. 19 No. 2, 1990, pp. 30-39.

Tansey, Richard and Michael R. Hyman. "Dependency Theory and the Effects of Advertising by Foreign-Based Multinational Corporations in Latin America." Journal of Advertising, Vol. 23 No. 1, March 1994, pp. 27-42.

Turner, Rik. "GM Tries to Put Brakes to Corsa Success in Brazil." Advertising Age, May 16, 1994, pp. I-1, I-21.

Zandpour, Fred. "Global Reach and Local Touch: Achieving Cultural Fitness in TV Advertising." Journal of Advertising Research, September/October 1994, pp. 35-63.

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