2018/09/25: DNA, these marketing campaigns imply, reveals something essential about you. And it’s working. Thanks to television-ad blitzes and frequent holiday sales, genetic-ancestry tests have soared in popularity in the past two years. More than 15 million people have now traded their spit for insights into their family history.
If this were simply about wearing kilts or liking Ed Sheeran, these ads could be dismissed as, well, ads. They’re just trying to sell stuff, shrug. But marketing campaigns for genetic-ancestry tests also tap into the idea that DNA is deterministic, that genetic differences are meaningful. They trade in the prestige of genomic science, making DNA out to be far more important in our cultural identities than it is, in order to sell more stuff.
First, the accuracy of these tests is unproven (as detailed here and here). But putting that aside, consider simply what it means to get a surprise result of, say, 15 percent German. If you speak no German, celebrate no German traditions, have never cooked German food, and know no Germans, what connection is there, really? Cultural identity is the sum total of all of these experiences. DNA alone does not supersede it.
Listening to 99 Luftballons or rooting for Germany in the World Cup is fairly trivial as these things go. But this wave of marketing campaigns encourages a way of thinking—that you can pick and choose which fractional parts of genetic identity to highlight when it makes for good cocktail-party conversation.