The soundtrack that flattens culture to amplify margins—the gain temporary, the collateral effects long-lasting. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s what you get when you try to compress a whole idea into a formula. An attempt to capture a category of things with a simple, generalized belief. You declare: ‘I expect you’re the kind of person/people who does/do that.’
Spam and marketing done on the cheap are all about stereotypes. They speak to the minimum common denominator possible— ‘as long as they’re paying attention.’ Often, the message needs to agree with the client/customers based on their expectations. You know what they say, ‘a happy client is one who gets exactly what they asked for.’
Stereotypes can be very successful at the margins. They do leave a bad taste in culture—the effects are long-lasting. Marginal stories weave a fictional narrative. One where there’s nobody home.
You may excuse Britain for getting the story wrong—even magazines with good reputations cannot resist the allure of ‘going viral.’ It was the case when, instead of investigating the funneling of Euroscepticism into Brexit and the reasons why Britain, once a land of ambitious colonizers, is descending into a dramatic spiral, The Economist decided to make fun of Italy. Whee, that’s going to be a long way down!
I can only begin to imagine the conversations that went on at Armando Testa with the Ministry of Tourism. Whatever it was, banality was the result. Perhaps no longer the Armando Testa who was granted the Gold Medal of the Ministry of Education for his contribution to Visual Art in 1968.
The result is a walk-back of “not using English in official communications”—in a recent government proposal. A nod to how bad we are at taking our own advice. Stock photography, lack of proportion, images lifted from Slovenia, botched German translation of city names (Almawave using AI turned Prato into Rasen and Brindisi into Toast) for ads that, according to the client, are to attract young people—the customers.
“The campaign serves to sell our nation and our excellence, (…) with the awareness that advertising is the soul of commerce—and we must know how to sell Italy.” -Daniela Santanchè, ministro del Turismo
“The Italian tourism minister, Daniela Santanche’, a member of prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, called critics of the video “snobs” and said the depiction of Venus as an influencer was aimed at attracting young people.” [The Guardian]
Never mind that global demographics are signaling a gray wave over the next decade.
While the ads may capture the highlights under a cartoonish umbrella, modernize art in a mini-skirt and nod to selfie-ready phone (where are the people that fill those places?), they left fashion and design behind. Apparently the brief was public, because paid with public funds. The stated goals:
- Strengthen the competitive positioning of “Italy” as a destination in the following markets: internal, international in close proximity and non-European, expanding the referenced markets with a differentiated offer;
- Develop integrated initiatives between different thematic areas such as: culture, economy, environment and tourism;
- Enrich tourist offers and territorial experiences with the support for local identities as part of a unitary, coherent and homogeneous strategy of “Italy” as a destination.
Whether the new ads are suitable for improving the recovery of national and international tourism though digital communication, they’re miles away from packaging Italianess for Italians—and the people in the know. Compare with the recent photographic testimonials by professional champions and cultural icons.
Maybe the new campaign wasn’t designed to appeal to people who’ve experienced the real thing. They say that 90 percent of Americans who visit want pizza and Coliseum. Anecdotally, many first-timers do make sure they go to Rome, Venice, and Florence. Reactions among Italians were predictably similar to those at the launch of Italia.it.
Disbelief on Twitter, a social medium itself in turmoil. Too much cultural nuance in the spoofs to translate in a short space. They’re on point. I didn’t go down the Instagram rabbit hole. Which left LinkedIn.
Oxford and now Yale philosophy professor Luciano Floridi started one of the most prolific conversations. Comments range between “they hit the target market” (you may be the judge) to the ironic “the perfect mix of too much and too little” (too much stereotype, too little culture). Floridi’s appeal:
Dear creatives, a proposal: please donate two ideas to the ministry of tourism to advertise a wonderful and extraordinary country that does not include pizza-mandolin … and a Botticelli girl with an influencer-fish-boiled look. Do it for love of country, so as not to shame us all, out of pride, decency, civil spirit, even to give you some publicity … please. Lest it be said that this is Italy, that it is reduced like this. I don’t even know how to sharpen a pencil but if needed I volunteer to lend a hand. Please!
Someone responded to the appeal.
Does Italy have an awareness problem as a destination? Maybe not. Maybe the problem is being ‘top of mind’ when making the bookings. The new ad campaign, like many before it, is exactly the type of thing millions of Italians in Italy and all over the world work daily to counter.
Facile stereotypes under deliver on the potential experience.
I agree with Floridi that the new ads add no cultural value. You can’t convey Italy’s breath and depth of culture with an artificial ‘influencer.’ It’s a pale imitation at best, a parody at worst. But advertising is designed to the minimum common denominator. It’s only the industry insiders after the awards who object. Businesses want purchase.
Botticelli’s art represented beauty and complexity
“The present is only faced, in any generation, by the artist… The absolute indispensability of the artist is that he alone, in the encounter with the present, can give pattern recognition. He alone has the sensory awareness to tell us what the world is made of. He is more important than the scientist.”
– Marshall McLuhan, 1968
Young people may not have the means of middle- and late-career earners, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate culture. Artist Roberto Celestri showcases art beautifully. Dancer Roberto Bolla adds to beauty, harmony, movement, and community. They both have substantial Instagram followings.
The bigger opportunity is cultural—to build a bridge between those in transit and those who live in Italy. Travel can be a portal to self-discovery and connection. Rather than just an empty exercise in selfie-making. At least maybe for a portion of the 60 million tourists who choose Italy from abroad—over an Italian population of a 60+ million.
Beauty and complexity are both part of Italy’s history to the present day. You don’t need a lot to showcase the real thing. For the many who look, they can find a review of natural and human-made beauty with a memorable soundtrack.
Or a narrative guide to the cross-country journey.
In addition to music, Italy has a renown ‘voice’ tradition—opera and dubbing are in its cultural genes. People talk to each other at cafes, by street corners, during meals, while pretending to be in line (lines are creatively messy in Italy).
Beyond advertising, which you design to get attention and (ideally) conversion, you’d have a hard time translating all this value into strong communication. Switzerland has taken the ‘no drama’ approach. Were it not for the celebrities, would you remember it?
Many business executives and companies in America are on the same boat when trying their hand at effective (brand) narrative. It’s harder than it seems. Do you focus on the right things? Or is your communication missing the mark? Testing helps. We’re never one and the same with the people who read our work.
The video below says “I fell in love with Rome!” in the same way my friend Sheila said it in a recent conversation. Music and voice compound value for someone who’s been there.
Stereotypes are caricatures of culture. They’re gross simplifications of marginal characteristics. They’re context-based, like a beaked nose or a protruding chin—they make sense at a carnival (like advertising). But they’re not as the defining features in the collective imaginary (those who know better).
Stereotypes get baked into the narrative. Assumptions work this way as well.
The value of genuine, lived experiences.
Italians are known for their hospitality, artistic disposition, the regional diversity of foods and wines, and—yes—cultural influence. Less known, but also excellent is technical expertise—mechanical, construction, and pharma ingredient industries.
Beyond awareness, the investment could go to giving Italians the tools to be hospitable, share their art and technical expertise—and provide better access to secondary cities and regions.
Most Americans who want to cover a lot of ground in a short span (legendary little time off) end up renting a car. Beauty is everywhere, trains… not so much. (Before you scoff, do remember America’s situation with trains.) Italy has excellent and affordable fast trains, but they cover mostly the north and main hubs/cities.
Italy’s rail network is extensive, connecting major cities with smaller cities and towns. But if you are looking to venture off the beaten track, you have fewer and slower trains to get you to less-traveled (because less serviced) but equally (or more) beautiful corners of the country. Sardegna, Sicilia, Puglia, Calabria, Marche for those who love the sea. Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Val d’Aosta, Abruzzo for those who love mountains. Umbria for the chocolate lovers. Art and crafts are everywhere.
A hub-and-spokes strategy works reasonably well when you go by train. I’d rather spend quality time in a few places, than try to cover a lot of ground in a crowded rush.
Your experience—walking up and down hills, steps, towers, and on beaches, waiting for trains (when ‘in ritardo’)—may vary. But it will be a memorable experience. Because Italians are masters at adaptation and in-person interaction. So ignore the new ads if they bother you, go hang out—Italy is the perfect place to feel alive. Now where’s that Prosecco…
P.S. I curate a magazine on Flipboard, where you can find more than 4.6k hand-selected articles on food, fashion, art, design, and profiles of prominent Italians.