Americans: a love-hate story

Case

Americans: a love-hate story

A century of fascination and aversion in digitised newsprint

Cultural scientist Melvin Wevers (34) has had a life-long obsession with the United States. Hollywood movies? He can’t get enough of them. The more Indiana Jones, Rocky and Star Wars, the better. His passion includes an unconditional love for American music. ‘Well allright then, electronic music from Britain isn’t all that bad. But I always annoy people by saying: I hate the Beatles, their music does nothing for me...’.

After his psychology studies, Master’s in American Studies in Utrecht and research Master’s in Cultural Analysis in Amsterdam, Wevers spent a few years in ICT… and then, as if by magic, a doctoral project that suited him perfectly fell into his lap: the rise of the United States in public discourse in the Netherlands between 1890 and 1990, a multifaceted project supervised at Utrecht University by Professor Joris van Eijnatten and mentor Dr Jaap Verheul.

Digitised newspapers

The project has now resulted in a substantial thesis on “Consuming America”. Wevers used millions of digitised newspapers to research how Dutch people associated products with the United States during the twentieth century. Wevers shows that Uncle Sam played a crucial role as a reference point in the Netherlands’ transformation to a modern consumer society.

‘But at the same time I was surprised,’ says Wevers, ‘at the United States’ continuing role as a benchmark of globalisation, consumerism and modernisation, despite periods of undeniably strong anti-Americanism. The Dutch never turned away from the US en masse even though, with ‘Vietnam’ and other unsavoury, aggressive marketing strategies of American companies abroad, they had good reason to.’

Black and white photo of two smiling girls at a 'soda fountain', reading a magazine, two bottles of Coca-Cola in front of them. Photo: ShutterstockArchetypal America: girls at a 'soda fountain', magazine, bottles of Coca-Cola. Photo: Shutterstock

Over the past few years Melvin Wevers has spent long hours in the National Library in The Hague. Virtually, though, not at a desk or in the reading room, because the digital newspaper archive is easily accessible via the website Delpher.nl. The library has a vast digital archive of newspapers from the period 1890 to 1990. ‘The library has its own search engine. But the steps you take can’t be automatically documented. And you can only carry out limited analyses. That made it difficult for me to use. Inevitably, I ended up applying my own algorithms to the dataset and writing scripts. My years in ICT came in very handy for this. A discipline like computational linguistics has been around for a quarter of a century already, and is used to understand linguistic processes. But using these techniques to research and chart major historical processes is fairly new. That made the work exciting.’

Did you know? Women smoking in public places was not viewed as chic. The Dutch looked down on it. But at the same time, women smokers attracted epithets such as ‘free’ and ‘new’ and ‘emancipated’ – which is why such changes were also viewed positively.’

Women smokers

What did people write about in ‘the newspaper’ during the century in question? And, for example, was there a difference in perception in the Netherlands before and after the two World Wars? ‘For a long time, women smoking in public places – which had become quite common in America – was not viewed as chic. The Dutch looked down on it. But at the same time, women smokers attracted epithets such as ‘free’ and ‘new’ and ‘emancipated’ – which is why such changes were also viewed positively.’

The influx of consumer goods laid the foundations for the later embracing of everything American. It was not until the late 1920s that the fascination really began to grow. The Roaring Twenties in the US appealed to the Dutch imagination, but there was no attempt to disguise an aversion to the commercial side. And so fascination and disapproval remain evenly balanced.

Cowboy overlooks the Rocky Mountains. Photo: ShutterstockAnother archetype: Cowboy musing near the Rocky Mountains. Photo: Shutterstock

Wevers: ‘America’s role in the Second World War expressed itself later in Dutch euphoria about the liberation, Marshall aid and imported products... in the 1960s, Europe (including the Netherlands) and the US belonged together and the West stood united against the Eastern Bloc. Now, a clear separation seems to be re-emerging between what Europe thinks and what America thinks, even though, not so long ago, Obama opted for unity. Dutch newspapers are writing a lot about Trump: again, this shows a fascination alongside the gloomy tone. It’s a pity my research stops at 1990.’

There was a practical reason for this: the library’s stock of digitised newspapers contains very little post-1990 material, for copyright reasons. However this cut-off point neatly gave a study period of one hundred years with the fall of the Berlin Wall as an historical endpoint.

All in all, the digitised texts enabled Wevers to study the newspaper discourse on consumer products – especially Coca-Cola and cigarettes – yielding useful insights into the ways in which Dutch consumers and producers portrayed and observed the United States and its consumer culture. It was precisely ‘Coke’ and the cigarette – think of the Marlboro man and the Camel-smoking doctor – that served as reference points during the modernisation of the Dutch consumer society.

Cigarettes and soft drinks

American consumer goods symbolise more abstract – and often contradictory – ideas such as authenticity, mass consumption, efficiency, freedom and quality. These ideas were conveyed through adverts for consumer goods and repeated in national debates on various issues that the modern consumer society entails, such as the emancipation of women as consumers, the interweaving of business, science and government, the consequences of globalisation and the health risks of cigarettes and soft drinks.

Ideas, values and practices associated with the United States in public discourse remained relatively stable during the twentieth century
- Melvin Wevers

Wevers: ‘I discovered that the ideas, values and practices associated with the United States in public discourse remained relatively stable during the twentieth century. This core of ideas, values and practices stemmed largely from the fact that newspapers reflected a specific perception of the United States. In so doing, they actually created and maintained a stereotype.’

And what about music? Wevers: ‘That’s a bit of a pity. Research into music is on ice because there simply aren’t enough digitised data available. Image creation in American music is a fascinating topic. Popular culture plays with concepts like authenticity and frequently refers to archetypal American ideas. People are often too quick to believe that everything that comes from America is ‘fake’. Whereas the construction of authenticity can teach us a lot about how cultures see themselves and others. Take British or American hip-hop, for example, where the authentic experience of social and racial inequality is constructed in different ways... It would yield some interesting follow-up research.’

Further information

M.J.H.F. (Melvin) Wevers will defend his PhD on Friday 15 September 2017 at Utrecht University with his thesis entitled “Consuming America. A Data-Driven Analysis of the United States as a Reference Culture in Dutch Public Discourse on Consumer Goods, 1890-1990”. His research was supported by NWO funding under the Horizon programme. His supervisor is professor Joris van Eijnatten and the associate supervisor Dr Jaap Verheul.

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