Image vs. Reality

November 12, 2006

A seeming paradox about Thailand has always gnawed at me. Thai government authorities are obsessed with the country's image abroad, yet it seems very little is done to tackle the reality that gives rise to negative perceptions. We are outraged whenever foreigners depict us as a land of prostitution. But a look at the opulent houses of prostitution lining Ratchadapisek Road, those so-called massage parlors (whose clientele are mostly Thai), makes you wonder if we as a society aren't at least a little bit hypocritical.

The latest concern is, of course, foreigners' perceptions of Thailand's coup. So far, the Surayud government has been making the right noises about restoring democracy, transparency and good governance. It is important to remember that image, no matter how distorted, follows reality. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Meanwhile, an article in The Economist suggests that it is not easy for governments to spend their way to a better national image. Did you say Thailand is a crossroads and/or gateway? Looks like we're not the only ones to have come up with this brilliant marketing insight:

'Most countries think that the outside world sees them wrongly. It is tempting to spend taxpayers' money on trying to put that right.

'But how? The commonest form is advertising: statistics-laden special supplements, where leaden prose is coupled with cheesy new logos and lame slogans. [Simon Anholt, a specialist in the same field and author of “Competitive Identity”] notes wryly that almost every country claims to be a crossroads or a gateway (or both) and presents itself as a “land of contrasts”.

'But money spent this way can easily be wasted. [Wally Olins, who advises countries on how to market themselves] notes that countries, unlike companies wanting to build brands, find it hard to stick to a strategy, project a clear message, or measure success. Furthermore, most people's views of foreign countries are deeply rooted and cherished. Unfavourable and comical stereotypes outweigh positive news.

'Messages to different audiences may overlap, or conflict. Jos? Torres of Bloom Consulting, which advises Portugal, says that the country's reputation as a laid-back holiday destination muffles its desired image as a good place for high-tech investment. He speaks lyrically about the process of determining the country's desired persona. “What clothes would it wear, what car would it drive, what mobile phone would it use?”

'If that works at all, it is a long slog. There are two ways a country's image can change quickly for the better. One is good luck. “Crocodile Dundee”, a witty, virile Australian backwoodsman—an attractive version of Borat—transformed American perceptions of Australia. But such effects are usually partial. “Lord of the Rings”, a fantasy trilogy, showed the spectacular unspoilt scenery of New Zealand, where it was filmed, but has yet to help the food industry there much (see article).

'The other is innovation. New products and brands, arts and music, attractive politicians, even better public administration all change people's perceptions. In business, at least, image-polishing cannot substitute for regular rebukes and bouquets from bodies that systematically scrutinise countries' reputations, such as Transparency International.

'Nor can money spent on glitz and schmooze easily make up for dire political realities, such as a bad record on free speech, or an amnesiac approach to history. But that doesn't stop governments from trying. Russia is spending lavishly in the hope of boosting its international profile. Projects include trips for foreign journalists and politicians (one particularly cushy one was dubbed the “plane of shame”); another is an English-language television channel that aims to counteract the increasingly critical portrayal of the country abroad. A more successful initiative is an annual winter cultural festival in London's Trafalgar Square. That has cleverly combined two of the commonest popular perceptions of Russia: harsh winters and historic strength in art and music.

'The American administration is also spending heavily on public diplomacy. But apparently to less effect. Polls show unparalleled hostility around the world not just to the administration but to the country itself. “America spent 300 years building a powerful, rich, globally adored brand,” says Mr Anholt. “It is leaking away very quickly.”'

From "A new sort of beauty contest," The Economist, Nov 9th 2006

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