|A self-portrait taken at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the Korean Culture and Information Service / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
By Jon Dunbar
The government's latest promotional ads are receiving a well-deserved mocking online.
In a new 52-second ad, the Korea Tourism Organization gets wide-eyed members of K-pop idol group EXO (dubbed!) to ask "Have you ever…?" to an assortment of bewildered foreigners.
It may have looked good on paper, but it immediately falls to self-parody, with the first question asked being "Have you ever slept?" As if the Republic of Korea itself invented sleep. And it doesn't improve from there, next asking "Have you ever been to a restaurant?" Exactly what type of foreigner is Korea trying to attract with this?
The ad resurrected memories of other embarrassing promotional campaigns, most notably the city's three-year-old slogan "I.Seoul.U" and 2008's cringe-worthy national tourist slogan "Korea Sparkling." And I almost forgot about the doomed slogan "Creative Korea."
A lesser-known 2011 ad titled "The more you know, the more you want to know," promotes Korea in a similar structure to the "Have you ever?" ad, sending a rogue's gallery of national stereotypes to ask contrived questions about Korea, including an American cowboy on horseback asking "Where's the best place for bibimbap?" outside a Korean palace, a Frenchman in a Napoleon-style costume in front of Daehan Gate asking "Korea's going to host the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, right?" and so on.
Whenever things like this crop up, whether we're talking a two-word slogan or full ad campaign, a common response is "Why didn't they run this by a foreigner?"
Actually, they do. I used to be one of those foreigners, working for the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) within the culture ministry, originally formed in 1971 as a propaganda apparatus to spin Park Chung-hee's Yushin Constitution for foreign correspondents, now used more to promote hallyu but still the official government mouthpiece in foreign languages. From 2011 to 2013, I got a close look at how the government brands itself and the country.
So yes, they run these initiatives by foreign colleagues like me. The problem is, they don't listen. They come looking for a rubber stamp, often late in the planning stage when it's too late to change anything.
Later, they can deflect any criticism by saying "Yes, we did consult a foreigner _ that one!" Guess who gets the blame. If there's anything civil servants know, other than test-taking, it's covering their asses. They are not motivated to create a successful campaign or attract foreigners; all they need is something their (almost always monolingual) superiors like that doesn't rock the boat.
The first such slogan forced on me was to commemorate the 40th anniversary of KOCIS, and its assembly resembled Seoul's later process to select its slogan. We solicited the public for bilingual slogans, and everyone in the office got to vote for their top 10.
What we ended up with was quite eloquent in Korean, but in English, "Reaching Out Constantly, Resounding Globally." I suggested ways to improve it, but was told that was the contest entry and we couldn't touch it.
Later at big meetings, everyone would chant the Korean phrase and then wait for me to recite this awkward, uninspiring English slogan, which nobody could make sound inspiring, not even the guys who dubbed over EXO.
Sometime after that, I was consulted on the existing national brand, "Dynamic Korea." To me that's a pretty good slogan, both descriptive and accurate. It was already at least five years old, and falling out of favor with higher-ups, who thought it was too close to "dynamite." It's a surprising connection for English speakers, who can also eat a sandwich without picturing "sand."
Then they rolled out the replacement slogan for me: "attrACTIVE Korea," welding together the adjectives of "attractive" and "active" in a way that seems like clever wordplay until you realize there's no deeper meaning. To me it presented a Korea of "palli palli" impatience, seeking gratification through skin-deep beauty. That's not to say those elements don't exist here, but it's not the foot I would put forward to promote the nation.
I put my foot down, consulting with my English-speaking colleagues and creating a paper trail to log my protest, writing a report stating it was specifically unattractive. Ultimately they acquiesced and Korea remained Dynamic until 2014, when "Imagine Your Korea" replaced both the national slogan "Dynamic Korea" and tourism slogan "Korea Sparkling."
It was pretty amazing I was able to reject a national slogan. And yet what do I have to show for it? You can thank me you never heard of attrACTIVE Korea before now, I guess.
The next main slogan I defeated during my 25+ months there was for a traditional medicine organization. In 2009 UNESCO added the Dongui Bogam, a Korean Oriental medicine textbook dating to 1613, and the government wanted to promote this, much to the consternation of Korea's evidence-based medical community, who acknowledged its value only as a historical relic, not science (wise judgment, considering it reportedly included an invisibility formula).
Someone came to my desk with a list of about five possible choices, all variations of "Ko-Medi," for which they were adamant about getting a rubber stamp from a foreigner. I quickly pointed out this sounded too close to the English word "comedy." In retrospect, I wish I hadn't stopped this one.
I believe they settled on K-medi, which is now claimed by two very different organizations: the Seoul K-Medi Center offering traditional medicine services support, and the Korea Medical Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Agency. Good sharing, guys.
Lately, it's easy enough to slap a "K-" on almost any cultural property to market it as part of the hallyu fad. But it's gone to some ridiculous extremes. Most recently I saw there's a K-Hospital Fair at COEX.
From government agencies and private companies I've also seen K-shamanism, K-scissors, K-subway, K-food as well as K-hot food, and dozens more, all hitching a ride on the perceived or anticipated popularity of K-pop rather than encouraging a deeper interest in Korea. Fed up with Korea and want to leave? The K-Move program is here for you.
All the ridiculous slogans I've seen mean nothing. They get attention only when they suck, which competing competent slogans aren't recipients to.
As Korea's brand value rises internationally, it will become apparent that flashy, expensive video and slogan campaigns are just busywork, and Korea's greatest assets will sell themselves. The K-propagandists fear this, and not without reason.
Jon Dunbar (email@example.com) is a copy editor of The Korea Times.