Problems That Arise From The Diffusion Of Popular Culture Essay

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Among the three effects of globalization on culture, the growth of global “pop culture” tends to get the most attention, and to strike people on a visceral level. Many complain that this form of globalization is actually Americanization, because the United States is by far the biggest producer of popular culture goods. Pop culture is manifested around the world through movies, music, television shows, newspapers, satellite broadcasts, fast food and clothing, among other entertainment and consumer goods.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell observed that “images of America are so pervasive in this global village that it is almost as if instead of the world immigrating to America, America has emigrated to the world, allowing people to aspire to be Americans even in distant countries.” (Barthin, 1998)

For the United States, the entertainment industry is one of the most important spheres of economic activity. In fact, the U.S. entertainment industry generates more revenue from overseas sales than any other industry other than the commercial aerospace industry. Many would say that this new juggernaut of American industry has propelled the American pop culture around the world at a frenetic pace.

Reality television is a popular medium for the broadcast of American culture. One of the most prominent examples is Keeping up with the Kardashians which follows the family life of the Kardashian family. The show has developed a dedicated following internationally and has contributed to an idea of a glamorous American lifestyle that is practiced by the family. This reality show and other like it have contributed to a rise of celebrities who are “famous for being famous” (O’Rourke, 2011).

The growth of the influence of American television has been mirrored within the film industry, as well. Viewed from the perspective of other countries, the dominance of the United States film industry in Europe has been a rapidly and recently growing concern. In 1987, U.S. films already held an imposing 56 percent of the European film market. Less than a decade later, that share had risen to over 90 percent. By 2009 though, US films had just 67.1 percent market share. (Dager, N. (n.d.). European box office up twelve percent, group says. (Dager, n.d).

Recently, countries in Europe such as France have passed protectionist measures, to facilitate the growth of the film industry domestically, which have damaged the share of American films overseas. The current share is 60-75 percent across Western Europe (Hopewell, 2013).  American movies and television shows, which are commonly referred to in trade parlance as audio-visual services, are therefore an important commodity among U.S. exports. As is often the case with exports and imports, exporting nations rarely acknowledge problems when one of their industries is able to capture a large or steadily increasing share of export revenues. However, when any sector of a nation’s industry is threatened by foreign imports, voluminous concerns are raised.

This is perhaps doubly the case with regard to inherently cultural products. Not only do foreign nations worry about their own domestic entertainment industries from an economic standpoint, but they also worry about the effects on their culture. For many citizens of other countries, American films and televisions shows are not just another commodity. 

“Washington’s crusade for free trade is often seen abroad as a Trojan horse for companies, such as Walt Disney Co. and Cable News Network, that would dominate foreign lifestyles and values. Most Americans react to these fears with a shrug. That’s a big mistake.”

- Jeffrey Garten, former U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade (Garten, J.E. (1998, November 29) ‘Cultural imperialism’ is no joke. Business Week)

The Spread of American Popular Culture

Globalization enables foreign companies to distribute American cultural products, including music and books. The spread of American restaurant chains and consumer products worldwide is accompanied by the spread of American popular culture. In recent years, American movies, music, and TV shows have consistently gained more and more audiences worldwide.

The products of popular musicians are also likely to be distributed by non-U.S. companies such as Japan’s Sony, Germany’s Bertelsmann AG, France’s Vivendi, or the United Kingdom’s EMI Group. Similarly, American authors are increasingly published by foreign media conglomerates, such as Bertelsmann, which owns Random House and Ballantine, or Australia’s News Corporation, which owns HarperCollins Publishing and the Hearst Book Group.

It is interesting to note that foreign media groups contribute to the spread of American popular culture as well.Foreign corporations earn profits by selling U.S. products, and U.S. products become more accessible worldwide.

Canada is one of the best examples of a country where U.S. cultural products dominate despite the Canadian government’s efforts to preserve local culture. Canadian films account for just 2.1 percent of Canadian film ticket sales, and the vast majority of the remaining 98 percent are American. Moreover, three quarters of the television watched, four out of five magazines sold on newsstands, and 70 percent of the content on radio, are of foreign origin. The vast majority of foreign products in all of these categories are American.

In most other countries, however, American cultural products are not as widespread as they are in Canada, and they face more domestic competition. In most cases, two general trends can be observed. First, many American cultural products tend to be popular with people of very different societies. Second, despite the popularity of American cultural products, other countries still produce a substantial number of films, music, books, and TV shows.


American cultural products are influential in the television industry, as well. For example, American company CNN exemplifies the global news network. After starting as a cable news network for U.S. viewers only, CNN now reaches over 200 million households in over 212 countries and territories. However, television remains a more local cultural form than movies, music, or publications.

However, there was a time when television had a significant impact on Eastern European politics. Television series such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty” were viewed by individuals living behind the Iron Curtain and offered an unrealistic, but appealing alternative to the communist lifestyle. The hyper-consumerism and extreme wealth portrayed on these shows stood in stark contrast to the poorer, more constrained lifestyle in the East.

Pop Culture Values

Almost by definition, popular culture has attained an immense global following precisely because it is popular. For many citizens of other countries though, the near take-over of their own cultural industries, especially for younger audiences, is of great concern.

As sociologist Peter Berger points out, pop culture:

carries a significant freight of beliefs and values. Take the case of rock music. It’s attraction is not just due to a particular preference for loud, rhythmic sound and dangerously athletic dancing. Rock music also symbolizes a whole cluster of cultural values—concerning self-expression, spontaneity, released sexuality, and perhaps most importantly, defiance of the alleged stodginess of tradition.

“In an era of global capitalism, cultural distinctiveness can become more important, not less important. Because it’s sort of what people have left.”

- Theda Skocpol

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