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Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of…
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Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity

by Marilyn Halter

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805210938, Paperback)

As one toy-company executive put it in the early '90s, "The color of money is green, and you get it from whatever skin tone has got it." Accordingly, with the annual buying power of minority customers exceeding $1 trillion, U.S. companies now spend $2 billion each year on advertising specifically designed to attract and engage these "New American" consumers. Who are they? More importantly, who do they think they are? And how are they expressing that self-identification through what they buy? In Shopping for Identity, Marilyn Halter explores these and other questions with an academic's critical eye and illustrates her research with an engaging variety of statistics, examples, and anecdotes.

Until well into the second half of the 20th century, America was seen as a cultural melting pot. Immigrants were expected to assimilate into the mainstream culture, and cultural pluralism wasn't officially recognized, let alone encouraged. That changed significantly with the passing of the Ethnic Heritage Act of 1974, which contributed to the growth of "ethnic celebrations, a zeal for genealogy, increased travel to ancestral homelands, and great interest in ethnic artifacts, cuisine, music, literature, and, of course, language." At the same time, corporate America began moving away from mass marketing and toward segmented marketing techniques, and these newly demonstrative ethnic constituencies quickly became one of the most targeted and profitable marketing segments. Multicultural marketing experts have proliferated and act as their companies' in-house ethnographers, learning and responding to the cultural nuances of their audiences. At the same time, ethnicity in itself is becoming increasingly optional and malleable, as individuals choose to take on certain identifying aspects of their cultural group while rejecting others. Halter's book poses some interesting questions: How does commercialism both enhance and make a commodity of ethnic identification? And what is authentic ethnic identification? Consider the non-Jewish. fourth-generation Irish leader of the organization for fostering Yiddish culture and education, who has immersed himself in living and promoting a Yiddish identity; or the way that certain ethnic peculiarities have become so ingrained in the culture that they've lost their obvious differences. Demonstrating the extent of cultural hybridism in the U.S., Halter quotes a Newsweek article as stating that "As the United States' Muslim community grows, so does the availability of halal products and pro-Islam tchotchkes." The Yiddish term for knickknacks hardly seems appropriate for pro-Islamic merchandise, and yet today's cultural hybridism often blinds us to such ironies.

Halter's extensive research calls attention to these everyday marketing techniques, which no longer seem strange in our pick-and-choose cultural milieu. In its examination of how Americans express their ethnicity in and through a commodity-driven, consumer culture, Shopping for Identity is a revealing study of how far we have come from the days when Margaret Mead could pronounce that "Being American is a matter of abstention from foreign ways, foreign food, foreign ideas, foreign accents." As Halter shows us, money does indeed talk in many different languages; her examination of both sides of the ethnic dollar is informative, provocative, and surprisingly entertaining. --S. Ketchum

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:49 -0400)

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In America today, you can connect to your ethnic heritage in dozens of ways, or adopt an identity just for an evening. Our society is not a melting pot but a salad bar, a bazaar in which the purveyors of goods and services spend close to $2 billion a year marketing the foods, clothing, objects, vacations, and events that help people express their (and others') ethnic identities. This is a huge business, whose target groups are the "hyphenated Americans"--in other words, all of us. As immigrant groups gain economic security, they tend to reinforce, not relinquish, their ethnic identification. The author demonstrates that, to a great extent, they do it by shopping. And their purchasing power is enormous. How has the marketplace responded to this hunger? Instantly and wholeheartedly: tweaking old products and inventing new ones; launching new brands in supermarkets, new music groups, vacation itineraries, language courses, toys, greeting cards, et cetera. This nexus of business and ethnicity is already seen as the hottest consumer development of this decade, and the author is uniquely qualified to describe its origins, the exponential growth of products and advertising, and the phenomenal sales of items from salsa to Chieftains CDs. She addresses her subject with an abundance of anecdotal evidence, telling examples of ethnic marketing, and interviews with entrepreneurs (many of them immigrants) who are vigorously seizing the opportunities offered by the business of ethnicity. This book illuminates an important aspect of our contemporary way of life while validating the yearning we all feel for connection to our roots.… (more)

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