Tourism unavoidably exploits human emotion

Commodification, masked by allure through a process called disneyfication, is an exploitative, but inevitable process in modern society

Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth. Whether to walk down the spotless Main Street U.S.A. or to wave at the perpetually smiling employees, Disneyland is the perfect fairytale world to help us forget about our problems.

Other than being known as the place where dreams come true, however, Disneyland is also notorious for being a highly controlled environment that maximizes consumption activities. The name for this phenomena is Disneyfication, a type of cultural commodification in which intangible ideas are transformed into purchasable, tangible goods. In the case of Disneyland, it sells magic and wonder — packaged with overpriced, trademarked names — to people tired of their repetitive routines.

With talking animals and parks like Fantasyland, it should come as no surprise that Disneyland is a place of illusions. According to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Disneyland is a miniature version of the United States and its values. It’s a place of staged authenticity where the world could go to rediscover their inner child. Disneyland is a utopia, yet it is guarded on all sides by bleak parking lots analogous to castle walls: it’s only the happiest place on Earth for those who can afford to pay the toll.

It’s easy to condemn these actions by Disney and other large corporations, yet commodification is virtually unavoidable today. Commodification, according to German economist Karl Marx, is the production of goods for monetary purposes rather than to use by the producer. By that definition, since we no longer live in a subsistence society, almost everything can be a commodity.

However, the marketing departments of some companies have taken the commodity beyond a simple possession. With Disneyland and other recognizable brand names, they are selling a lifestyle.

The reasoning behind this is explained by Marx in his concept of commodity fetishism. He states that consumers do not interact directly with producers; rather, the money of the consumers interact with the products of the producers. It is the commodities that have a relationship with other commodities, not us, therefore giving objects the power to take on meaning beyond the human labor that produced them. This is why a pair of Mickey Mouse ears instantly makes us think of Disneyland, and thus, the happiest place on Earth.

This sense of brand recognition is what companies are using to stand out among large amounts of media customers are exposed to every day. But intentionally reducing something to a single dimension is no longer restricted to brands. Actual humans and their cultures, too, are being commodified, especially in the tourism industry.

Tourism is one of the easiest ways to boost local economies because it creates jobs and generates income, in addition to creating a monetary incentive to preserve the local environment and culture. However, to attract tourists in the first place, the nuances of a culture must be dumbed down to fit a glossy brochure or a 30-second commercial. The most visited tourist attractions have an instantly recognizable symbol, just like logos for popular brands. From Paris’ Eiffel Tower to New York City’s Statue of Liberty, places must find their most unique aspect to advertise. Though commodification is already common in today’s world, the advertising process for tourism makes its effects especially harmful.

Firstly, diffusion makes the culture known to a wider society through promotions on traditional and social media. Next, with defusion, the culture is simplified or changed to make it acceptable to a popular audience.

Ultimately, tourism sells an experience; it takes the most attractive part of a culture and enhances it. Though this is a smart marketing strategy, it splits a culture into standardized, easily-consumed bits that focuses only on profit, taking away all its authenticity so there’s nothing left but an empty, meaningless shell of what it once was.

Commodification is seen as a necessary evil, most often criticized for turning things that shouldn’t be commodities into objects of monetary trade. No matter how strong the moral argument against commodification is, however, tourism continues to be one of the world’s largest industries and the Disney theme parks continue to be the most visited in the world. Barring the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend is likely to continue.

In Marx’s theory of alienation, he states that one becomes “estranged” from oneself as the result from repetitively performing simple tasks for the sake of the group. Though Marx applied it to people in the workforce, it holds true for students also. Even before the social vacuum of distance learning, our cyclical existence fell into a routine. The passage of time, outside of due dates and deadlines, were marked by midterms and finals. Life often felt like drudgery, and productivity plus overall wellness cannot be maintained long in that state. This is where the appeal of tourism, or to be somewhere other (somewhere better) than here, comes in.

Though commodification is inevitable under capitalism, it’s still important to note how exploitative it is for companies to monetize sadness and dissatisfaction as fuel for their own gain. We all need an utterly fantastical utopia once in a while; I only wish the utopia does not lie in such a dystopian world.

By Cathy Li, Feature editor
Editorial cartoon by Joy Wang