Stuck in Culture – MA Research in Costa Rica

Danilo Reuben, MA-student at CA-OS Leiden just got back from Costa Rica where he did his MA-research on how creatives, clients and culture influence the process of making advertisements in Costa Rica.

After finishing his BA in Sociology in 2002 in Costa Rica, Danilo worked in non-profit organizations and lectured at the University. In 2012 he came to Leiden to do the Master-programme Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology with a specialization in Media and Material Culture. His research was on the recursive loop between advertisements, creation and culture.Danilo Reuiben - San Jose

Selling market strategies

“I wrote to several advertisement agencies and only one granted me access to their office. I had a desk at the agency and I could talk to the employees when they were not too busy. Most of my time I spent with the creatives. Access to clients was very difficult because they were afraid that I would sell their marketing strategies.

Keep it familiar

I looked at how advertisements are made; what is the role of creatives, clients and culture? I found that in the advertisements my respondents created, Costa Rican stereotypes, as well as other imported references (from Hollywood mainly) that are familiar to everybody, are used a lot. The creatives were not particularly happy to restrict their creativity to stereotypes, but clients did not want to take risks and wanted to keep it familiar.

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Using culture to create culture

Advertisements make it look good to consume. They create a fictional reality in which there is a need to buy these products. If you do not buy them, you can get isolated because you cannot communicate fluently with your peers who do buy them, and share their references. And because ads make use of stereotypes, they look and feel familiar, which allows you to identify with the brands and products easily. You could say that advertisements make use of culture to create a new culture; a funny, happy or catchy one, where consumption is the way in.

Influence of products

Visuality is complex, we get a lot of references from a 30 seconds spot. It might be about a detergent, but the house, the clothes and the activities portrayed usually transcend the scope of any particular product. Given the amount of products available, and their diverse nature, they inevitably coalesce with each other; that is why you get cell-phones in beer commercials, or computers in deodorant commercials, for example. It is almost like product placement, only without the brand. What is placed is a way of life, the product placed is the consumer and how he or she could behave. And when you add other audiovisual products like movies and T.V. series, where similar lifestyles are portrayed, then you get a rather comprehensive apparatus of influence.

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Going Backstage

The advantage of doing ethnographic research is that because you stay with the same people for a long period of time, trust is built. Trust grants access to the ‘backstage’. The front stage is the image shown to the outside world while what actually happens at the backstage mostly stays hidden.

Home versus abroad

I did research in my home country, of which I know the language, culture etc. You would think that this is easier than when you conduct research in a different culture. For me this was actually not the case. I did understand what they were saying; I did share my respondents’ culture and understood their ironic laughs, but for me this actually was a great challenge. After 2 months of research I felt like I was just writing about normal things. I doubted if the things I wrote about were interesting enough; did they matter for my research? Therefore I believe it sometimes can be easier to pick up things that matter when you do research in a different culture.”

Danilo Reuben


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