Soft Power: The Consumer View

October 16, 2010

We tend to talk about soft power as a property of a country, eg America’s soft power.  This hides the fact that soft power lies in the relationship between the country and the person who is being influenced.

So what does soft power look like from the consumer side?  In recent usage soft power is understood as ‘attraction’.  Attraction has at least two components.

Firstly, there is imitation.  We think that a country (or aspect of a country) is admirable in some sense and want to be associated with it or choose to be like it.  In itself this can cover a whole range of things from watching Japanese anime or trying to copy the Chinese development model.  Who you imitate depends on what you are exposed to and to the range of models that are available and acceptable within our social context.

Secondly, there is opportunity.  Do we think that a country actually has something concrete to offer us for instance a business or educational opportunity, can it offer us some concrete help?

These two elements can reinforce,  undermine or compensate  each other:  a country is admirable but won’t give us a visa or a country that we don’t particularly admire offers us a scholarship.  It seems to me that imitation will have a wider reach but opportunity will have a stronger impact on particular individuals.  The perception of opportunity will encourage imitation.

This analysis tells us that soft power is not simply about looking admirable it’s about being and looking successful in a way that’s relevant to the person or group who are ‘buying’.  As new models of success emerge in world politics the market for soft power will become more competitive and more fragmented.




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