By Circles Robinson
There’s nothing like traveling abroad to get added perspective on things at home. A trip at the end of last year to Spain and Nicaragua got me thinking about some of the things that make Cuba different.
When you get off the plane at the modern Havana airport you are immediately struck by the absence of advertising. No “Drink Coca-Cola” signs, no shiny photos advertising hotels or airlines or credit cards. There are some large posters with palm trees, white sand beaches and attractive people invoking the island’s enchantments.
Once out on the streets of Havana, the impression of being in a different world continues. Nobody is trying to sell you a car, a home, a candidate, a vacation, toothpaste, a meal at a fast food chain or anything else.
In Cuba, there is no commercial advertising in newspapers or on television and only one radio station, Radio Taino, —directed to tourists— promotes a few Cuban products like Cristal and Bucanero beers. Billboards carry public service messages about saving water or electricity, or political messages reminding people of the economic damage caused by the US blockade or extolling the example of revolutionary heroes.
The lack of advertising even seems to go too far at times. A common complaint is a lack of public information on cultural and sporting events, despite the attempt that’s made on TV and in some publications to publicize them. Similarly, many restaurants, social clubs and offices have poorly visible signs or none at all, relying almost totally on word of mouth. This works fine for longtime locals, but may leave out many visitors or newer residents.
It’s almost impossible for some Westerners to imagine a life without ads. It’s no surprise; last year over US $450 billion went to advertising around the world. In the case of the US, many politicians consider freedom for companies to advertise on the par with freedom of speech and the right to buy hand guns.
Cuba’s system doesn’t look at it that way. Its authorities believe that a country striving for a fair and equitable distribution of all available goods has no use for the frenzied desire for “more, more, more,” that advertising stimulates.
The ad-less Cubans live without the stressful consumer Christmas season that characterizes most Western societies for the last two months of each year. And children don’t pester parents to buy sugar-coated cereals, take them to McDonald’s or purchase a never ending host of toys and electronic devices.
Without ads to tell them what they should be wanting, kids are generally content with far less, and adults as well. Cubans are big on family and friends; like to dance and drink their rum, read a lot, and are TV fanatics, loving their movies, soaps, musical and sports programs.
This doesn’t mean they are totally satisfied. Most would like a little more in the way of creature comforts – a car, sound system, a DVD, air conditioning, new furniture. But with those items out of reach of their purchasing power the chief concern is getting enough of the basics and a little variety in their food and clothing, independent of the brands.
At the same time, though, most Cubans also want the benefits offered by their social system, which provides the entire population with some basic foodstuffs and utilities at very low prices. In addition health care and education are free at all levels. A government program to replace old refrigerators, TVs and some other kitchen appliances has been underway in recent years.
When pressed, most people recognize that the country is incapable at this time of providing everyone with the basics and the extras. Armed with this recognition, the population continues —sometimes amid complaints— to use the crowded buses, turn on fans instead of air conditioners, and make do with their old furniture.
Would this attitude change if people were subjected to a daily barrage of ads for things they don’t have? Interestingly, many Cubans have no particular like or dislike for advertising since they’ve never lived with it.
Having seen both worlds, though, I feel that the dearth of advertising keeps the pressure down on the wish list and keeps people focused on the things they do have or can get.
As an ex-pat from the developed world, it’s a great relief to live without the strains of so many artificial “needs” created by ad firms. Cuba’s policy to live without commercial advertising is clearly one of the things that make it different.