Selling Dreams

new internationalist
issue 246 - August 1993

Selling dreams
Consumer culture has erupted in Eastern Europe.
Phil Weller wonders how the region will cope with the onslaught.

The familiar logos of Western corporations are plastered everywhere along the streets of Budapest, Prague and other Central European cities.

Further east, in the Ukraine, billboards abound explaining the virtues of Sony, Honda, Pepsi and Coca-Cola and the joys of smoking Marlboro. Even in isolated villages the logos of multinationals are common. A recent drive through Miskole in north-east Hungary revealed a spanking new McDonald's, complete with an American-style ‘drive thru’ sales window.

‘We can get all kinds of Western goods and products,’ says Romanian environmentalist Bogdan Paranici. According to business leaders and analysts the invasion of consumer values has barely started.

But even before the changes of 1989 people in the former Soviet bloc were desperate to get hold of Western consumer products. Their own ordinary house-hold goods were both shoddy and in short supply.

For Eastern European environmentalists, who had played an important part in the regional revolutions, the prospects of Western corporate investment were both welcome and worrisome. Western technology was needed to clean up and modernize polluting factories. But environmentalists worried about an explosion of garbage, the last thing they needed in their pollution-ravaged countries.

‘When the wall came down in East Germany, the amount of garbage from packaging literally doubled overnight,’ says Dan Swartz, a waste consultant living in Budapest. A 1993 forecast for the packaging industry in Eastern Europe predicted a growth rate three times higher than in Western Europe. Jean Louis Vuille, managing director of the Hungarian operations of the worldwide packaging giant Tetra Pak, says his company’s joint venture is ‘attempting to produce modern packaging to satisfy the needs of the consumer and to accompany our Hungarian partners on the road to the twenty-first century’.

Fine sentiments. But according to Swartz the first thing local municipalities now complain about is the mountains of garbage that are quickly piling up everywhere. Besides simple waste the profusion of consumer goods has created other problems. Big investments in car factories have begun to undermine existing energy efficient public transport systems. And Western packaged foods are destroying local food producers. ‘Now we can buy French cheese and milk but our farmers cannot sell their products,’ laments Hungarian Erzsebet Gergely.

The leaders of the corporate assault on the East have been the auto, cigarette, and food and beverage companies. Car and cigarette companies in particular are aggressively promoting their products through ‘lifestyle’ ads, an age-old technique which equates wealth and status with the product. Many of the advertisements are in English which enforces the product’s Western origin. A General Motors billboard in Hungary describes ‘The Dream Machine’ and a nearby cigarette advertisement invites smokers to ‘Taste the West’.

Although Western products are everywhere in Eastern Europe, unease about government red tape and uncertainty about political stability have combined to hold back massive new investment by foreign corporations. So far the lion’s share has been in the import/export sector, bringing in goods from Europe and America. A recent walk through a Ukraine department store revealed customers crowded around sales counters stocked full with imported Barbie dolls and Lego.

Local companies have also been hit by Western imports. Says Romanian activist Bogdan Paranici: ‘Television and computer manufacturing companies here were destroyed after the revolution when Western products with no duties or taxes were imported.’ Now, he says, they control the market and are raising their prices.

According to Polish economist Grzegorz Peszko, Western multinationals in the former Soviet bloc see an opportunity to flood the market with surplus, inferior goods and technically outdated equipment in exchange for access to cheap natural resources.

The old styrofoam packages phased out by McDonalds in North America are a case in point. They now can be found covering a Big Mac in downtown Budapest. ‘They simply shipped the old cartons over here,’ says Dan Swartz. For the moment, at least, it appears there’s a new twist to the old maxim: what’s good for the corporation is good for the nation.

Phil Weller works with the Austrian environmental group Global 2000.

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