The Dangers of Faux Localism

It’s always bothered me that the bigger a company grows, the more folksy and homespun it pretends to be. Now that Bank of America has gobbled up Fleet Bank in the Northeast – the largest bank merger in history – its advertising disingenuously stresses that BOA is “your neighborhood bank.” The strategy, of course, is to pretend to embrace the very virtues that the bank merger is jeopardizing. The merger will surely result in the closing of branch banks, and BOA will have less reason to do the kind of aggressive local lending that Fleet Bank, a long-time regional institution, once did.

For years I’ve winced at the local identity claimed by Applebee’s, the restaurant franchise. Its latest tagline is “Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood.” The Applebee’s near me is located in a moonscape of asphalt and big-box stores near a four-lane highway. There is nary a house in sight. What’s all this talk of “neighborhood”?!

The national franchises routinely parade their local identity by making well-publicized donations to a local Boy Scout troop or the United Way. But in truth their allegiance to and understanding of the local community is really limited to their return on investment. They are in the business of selling high-volume commodities, after all. Any local personality that they may assume is either pure pretense or a drag on productivity. The Wal-Marts, Home Depots, Pier Ones and Olive Gardens really can’t allow their thousands of outposts to be independent, idiosyncratic and locally rooted in any meaningful way. It would be too “inefficient” and blur the brand identity.

The quintessential local business in my hometown is A.J. Hastings, a beloved local stationery and card store that has been there forever. Some prices are higher than the Staples down the road, and the selection is both more limited and more interesting. But my town would not be the same if Hastings ever closed. It’s located downtown, within walking distance of other stores and restaurants, so it is integrated into the social life of the town. I’ve had dozens of chance social encounters in its homey, wooden-floored space across from the town common and farmer’s market. Hastings gives local teenagers their first jobs, as cashiers, and doesn’t make them wear goofy corporate uniforms. You can bring your dog inside the store with you, and not only will no one object, the clerks will fuss over your dog and give him a treat. The “market experience” at Hastings allows me to feel like a real person living in a specific, real place. Any time that I’m in the windowless, fluorescent-lit sanctum of a Staples, I am transformed into a consumer zombie and can literally forget if I’m in California, Missouri or Vermont.

The national chains themselves seem to realize that they are offering a sterile, suffocating experience, which is why they are so eager to find symbolic ways to compensate. With disingenuous zeal, the smart ones are trying to break out of the cocoons of homogenized vapidity that they themselves have created.

Case in point: Clear Channel, the radio behemoth that owns 1,600-odd local radio stations. Listeners around Akron, Ohio, were recently startled to hear an apparent “pirate radio station” that identified itself as “Radio Free Ohio.” The “pirates” railed against “corporate-controlled music playlists” and the radio signal blurred into that of another, larger station. But as Stay Free! magazine recently disclosed, Radio Free Ohio was the creation of Clear Channel itself! It was a gimmick intended to exploit public animosity to the very style of bland, boring, predictable crap that Clear Channel has imposed on the nation’s radio listeners.

“In a way,” said Carrie McLaren of Stay Free!, Clear Channel’s prank lies at “the heart of the problem with Clear Channel – ‘We’re this huge corporation, and we do everything to fake being local.’” The faking of local presence can be seen in “video news releases” sent by PR agencies to local news shows; in “customized” ads by beer companies that assert a local allegiance (“This Bud’s for you, St. Louis!”); and in broadcast deregulation, which has made a mockery of that industry’s statutory obligations to serve local communities.

Being local has implicit meanings: authentic, personal, known, accessible, trustworthy. No wonder Wal-Mart and other mega-chains want to appropriate those virtues. It’s tempting to think that faux localism is just another marketing subterfuge — stupid but benign. It’s not. Faux localism is a pernicious corporate meme that is supplanting and redefining our very understanding of what it means to be “local.” I consider that dangerous.