Consumption and Communication: an Overview of Consumer Issues in Asean

ABSTRACT - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Brunei has a combined population one-fifth larger than the U.S. Over the past few decades this region has experienced unprecedented economic growth due in large part to the influx of foreign capital. While the gradual build up of multi-national business activity in this region has occurred without eliciting much response, the resultant transformation of consumer behavior in the shift from traditional to mass-market has been perceived by some critics and consumer groups to be culturally destructive.


Katherine T. Frith (1994) ,"Consumption and Communication: an Overview of Consumer Issues in Asean", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. Joseph A. Cote and Siew Meng Leong, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 192-195.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1994      Pages 192-195


Katherine T. Frith, Pennsylvania State University


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Brunei has a combined population one-fifth larger than the U.S. Over the past few decades this region has experienced unprecedented economic growth due in large part to the influx of foreign capital. While the gradual build up of multi-national business activity in this region has occurred without eliciting much response, the resultant transformation of consumer behavior in the shift from traditional to mass-market has been perceived by some critics and consumer groups to be culturally destructive.

In addition, the communication styles employed by multi-national marketers in their advertising have, on occasion, been criticized by local consumer groups as clashing with regional cultural values and communication styles. In response to this public criticism, some Southeast Asian governments have invoked regulations and bans to control what is seen as the undesirable and unnecessary side effects of an advertising industry that is dominated in large part by large Western multi-national agencies.

This paper will review some of the criticism, examine their implication, describe some recent government regulatory action and attempt to abstract some learning from these experiences. In addition, the paper will discuss communication within an Asian perspective and offer some suggestions and examples for advertisers.


In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows describes some of the differences between the American and the Asian view on economic systems. He suggests that there are a number of patterns that distinguish the Western and the Asian models. In particular, he notes that the main purpose of an American-style economy is to raise individual consumption, thereby raising the overall standard of living. He notes that relative to the American cultural belief system:

"Economic development means 'more.' If people have more choice, more leisure, more wealth, more opportunity to pursue happiness, society as a whole will be a success.   (Fallows, 1993, p.77)

On the other hand, the goal of most of the successful Asian economies has been to develop the productive base of their countries, even at the expense of consumer choice. He cites the anti-consumer, high-priced retail system in Japan as one example of this and the recent "anti-luxury" campaign in Korea as another.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the differing views on consumption between the U.S. and Asia with particular reference to the countries in Southeast Asia, commonly referred to as the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN). In addition, we will examine some of the underlying differences in communication styles that have helped shape public policies toward consumption and communication in this region.


Southeast Asia, which marketers usually define as including Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, has a combined population that is considerably larger than the U.S. Over the past decade, this area has experienced one of the highest level of sustained economic growth of any area in the world. This growth has been accompanied by a rapid increase in marketing and advertising activity. According to Ogilvy and Mather advertising expenditures in Southeast Asia rose by almost 50% from 1980 to 1990. During that period, over a billion dollars (U.S.) were spent on mass media advertising in the region.

The rapid economic growth in Southeast Asia has brought with it an influx of large multinational corporations and their advertising agencies. While the gradual build-up of multinational business activity in this region has occurred without eliciting much response, the resultant transformation of consumer behavior in the shift from traditional to mass-market has been perceived as problematic by some consumer activists and government leaders in the region


Critics contend that the recent economic growth has brought with it the accompanying growth of a, so called, "Western consumer culture". Leaders of local consumer associations and public interests groups throughout the region have laid blame on advertising, in particular, for the spread of a set of un-Asian attitudes that have been associated with the growth of consumption [Omar l985; Hamdan Adnan l981; Goonasekera l987: Lubis l986; Constantino l986]. These critics of advertising argue that when multinational advertisers or their multinational advertising agencies move into this new setting, they bring with them a set of assumptions based on the Western consumer culture. As noted earlier by Fallows, the American assumption that, society is a success when individuals have "more" runs counter to the underlying beliefs and practices in most Asian societies where family, group and community relationships take precedence over individual needs.

In their popular book, Selling Dreams: How Advertising Misleads Us, Malaysia's Consumer Association of Penang describes the situation in this way:

A worrying trend is the growing influence of negative aspects of Western fashion and culture on the people in the Third World countries, including Malaysia. The advertising industry has created the "Consumer Culture" which has in fact become our "National Culture". Within this cultural system people measure their worth by the size of their house, the make of their car and the possession of the latest household equipment, clothes and gadgets.   [CAP 1986, p. 108]

Consumer culture is of particular concern to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia who are actively engaged in an effort to create a coherent national culture from many very distinct subcultures. Consumption per se, is not seen to be an ill, but rather as a necessary function in a modern economy whose wage-earners can no longer provide all their needs from family sources. "Consumer culture", on the other hand, is seen to embody a set of attitudes based on values very foreign to Southeast Asia. While the charge from the Penang group that:

...the consumer culture, generated by advertising, leads to increased egotism, individualism and competition among people.

may seem rather strange to the Western mind, it both helps to illustrate the distinction being made between economic behavior desired by the producer (consumption) and the phenomenon of "consumer culture", and to throw a light on some of the psychological dimensions of this phenomenon.

Westerners and Asians might agree that egotism is a generally less than desirable trait, but the other two psychological traits of the consumer culture targeted in the foregoing quote-individualism and competition-are either anathema or virtue, depending on which side of the Pacific one stands.


Criticism of the consumer culture is not a new phenomenon, and is not limited to Southeast Asia. [Pollay l986; Dyer 1982; Inglis 1972; Ewen 1976: Leiss et al. 1986]. Critics within the developed world charge that, in highly industrialized societies such as the U.S. and Great Britain, traditional values and culture are being replaced by a consumer culture in which the quality of life is judged on the attainment of objects, their use, disposal and the acquisition of others [Inglis 1972]. Acquisition and consumption become the driving force within a consumer society and this lifestyle of self-indulgence pre-empts other possible values. Advertising has been charged with being the fuel for a consumer society.

The role of advertising in a developing country has been hotly debated for over a decade. In his Communication and Social Change in Developing Nations, Goran Hedebro [1982] contends that transnational companies are part of a larger economic and political system that promotes a lifestyle which is contingent on individual acquisition of consumer goods. The MacBride report, written in 1980 as part of UNESCO's inquiry into the new world information order, and entitled Many Voices One World: Communication and Society Today and Tomorrow, voiced a similar concern about the impact of advertising on developing nations. It states:

Because advertising is overwhelmingly directed toward the selling of goods and services which can be valued in monetary terms, it tends to promote attitudes and life-styles which extol acquisition and consumption at the expense of other values.

...material possession is elevated to a social norm so that people without are made to feel deprived or eccentric.   [MacBride et al. l980, p.110]

Seen from the point of view of the developing nations of Southeast Asia, however, this style of life may not take into account the welfare of the community as a whole. In the context of Southeast Asian culture, the fulfillment of family, group and community needs is more highly esteemed than the gratification of individual consumption goals. Yet, so often, consumer goods are advertised in the context of borrowed slices of decidedly Western life replete with individualistic and competitive motivational goals.


In addition to the differing views on consumption there are distinct differences in communication style between the East and the West (Kincaid, 1987: Dissanayake, 1988) which have an impact on consumer behavior in this region. These differing communication styles have developed in response to different historical, philosophical and religious traditions and influence everything from press policy to advertising to "doing business in the region."

In the West we can trace our theories on communication all the way back to the Greeks. Aristotle's The Rules of Rhetoric, a seminal work in the field of communication, describes the theory of how human communication works. The communication process is broken down into its component parts:

the communicator

the message

the receiver

According to Aristotle the objective of all communication is to transmit information. Current mass communication researchers (Carey, 1989 ; Kincaid, 1987; Mehra, 1989) note that the purpose of communication in the West is still, essentially, to transmit information. James Carey, former Dean of the Institute of Communications at the University of Illinois describes it in this way:

"...American studies are grounded in a transmission or transportation view of communication. We see communication basically as a process of transmitting messages at a distance for the purpose of control. The archetypal case of communication, them, is persuasion; attitude change; behavior modification; socialization through transmission of information, influence or conditioning..."    (Carey, 1989, p. 42)

In Asia we find very different philosophies and traditions that have guided human communication. Unlike the individualistic, egalitarian, democratic and liberal traditions of Western economic and political theory, many Asian societies value, communal, autocratic, hierarchical and conservative traditions that emphasize social harmony and meeting one's duties and obligations to the collective (whether that be the family, the community or the nation). The most important aspect of communication, in most Asian cultures is, the maintenance of social harmony (Kincaid, 1987).

The traditions that have been most important in shaping the thought and philosophies of communication in the ASEAN region are Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. In terms of communication all of these traditions tend to stress the maintenance of social harmony and this in turn affects communication on all levels from interpersonal to mass communication (Yum, 1987; Lee, 1987; Okabe, 1987; Chu, 1988).

In Southeast Asia, communication whether it be interpersonal or mass communication must fit within the cultural values framework inherent in national ideologies like Pancasila and Runtenegara. One example of how this works is the Indonesian policy called SARA that guides communication within that country. SARA is an unofficial policy which forms the basis for a "national commitment not to offend." SARA stands for Suku (ethnic groups) issues, Agama (Religious) issues, Ras (racial) issues and Antar-golongan (Inter or ethnic group) issues or conflicts. Discussing these four sensitive issues in the press or even in public debate is essentially taboo because in a country with approximately 400 ethnic groups, five national religions, and at least four racial groups, any public discussion of these issues could possibly inflame a situation or lead to political instability. For the sake of social harmony the government asks both the press and the population to restrain from public debate on any of these issues.

"By consciously restraining itself for the sake of the unity of the nation and in observance of the government's appeal, the press has contributed to the overall stability of the nation."   (Mehra, 1989, p.34)

While Indonesia is unique in formalizing this communication policy, there are similar, informal policies in most of the ASEAN countries. Authority figures, whether they be royalty or government officials are generally not criticized in public. In addition, criticism of government policies such as Malaysia's New Economic Policy, is not debated publicly. In Singapore the concept of "Western Free speech" had been frequently assailed. As former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has said:

"When the marketplace contest of ideas has been practiced in newly independent nations, it has ended in less than happy results."     (Mehra, 1989, p.6)

While these differing views on the role of communication have had little impact on most aspects of multi-national business, they have, however, had an impact on advertising in this region. In the West the main purpose of advertising as communication is merely to transmission product information to the consumer. In may of the ASEAN countries, however, advertising is expected to not only sell products, but also to actively contribute to nation building.


Over the past two decades various Southeast Asian governments have attempted to limit excessive consumptions by instituting strict control over the content and amount of advertising in the media. In Indonesia, the government instituted a total ban on television advertising for almost ten years (1981- 1991). Chief among the reasons cited for the ban was "official concern that television advertising is raising expectations too high" [Anderson l984]. Television broadcasting has always been an integral part of the Indonesian government's national development strategy and every village in Indonesia has at least one television set available for communal use. Before the advertising ban however, it was not government agricultural extension information or local news broadcasts that were receiving the highest ratings but rather the half-an-hour of television advertising which appeared twice a day. A content analysis of television advertising before the ban revealed that the vast majority of television commercials depicted products set in up-scale, urban lifestyle situations, even though over 90% of Indonesians were living in poorer, rural areas. Today, the Indonesian government has currently lifted the ban and now allows advertising on all but one government television station.

In an effort to control the content of television advertising, the Malaysian government has created an elaborate system of government regulations. The Malaysian Ministry of Information has direct control over advertising appearing on radio and TV. In fact, all commercials must be screened by the government's censor board before they are allowed to air. The Ministry's Advertising Code provides guidelines that agencies must follow and which are aimed at protecting the Malaysian national language, religion, culture and tradition. The Code specifically states:

Adaptation or projection of foreign culture, either in the form of clothing, activity or behavior is not allowed.

Perhaps the most interesting regulation in the Malaysian Advertising Code, relates to second messages:

In addition to the commercial message, all advertisements must also contain a second message relating to cleanliness, healthy living, discipline or industrious attitude.

In effect, commercials on Malaysian television are expected to have a secondary, social message to assist the government in fostering a sense of national unity and supporting the underlying values of the country.

Real or imagined, fears of excessive consumption and communication and cultural destruction through the medium of advertising has spurred Southeast Asian governments to take preventive action, and, in the case of Malaysia, to attempt to harness the power of TV advertising to promote social goals in culturally-appropriate commercial messages.


There has been a steady voice of concern raised by leaders of ASEAN nations that "consumer culture" and inappropriate communication styles from Western industrial nations are being imposed upon the developing nations through imported advertising and other imported forms of mass communication.

In ASEAN, one way of dealing with this has been the process of introducing formal and informal regulations and policies aimed at curbing the perceived threat of foreign cultural influence.

There are a number of lessons that Westerners can learn from this. By remaining insensitive to indigenous cultures multinational marketers set the stage for increasing layers of government regulation and government censorship in the developing countries. In addition, by encoding advertising messages within a re-created Western cultural context, overseas agencies are not only introducing inappropriate cultural values but also increasing their task in predisposing buying behavior.

Audiences are being required to understand and value slices of alien life in order for them to able to "confer value" on the product. By becoming resonant with (rather than supplanting) indigenous culture and communication patterns, Western-based multinational marketing and advertising will become both more efficient and less culturally destructive.


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Katherine T. Frith, Pennsylvania State University


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1994

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