Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Hallyu's Blindspot Part 2: Marketing "Contrast"

Hello! This is part two (obviously) of a two-part article. I was hoping to to get it out last week but life happened. If you didn't read part one and want to, click here. For everyone else, let's cut to the chase.

So in the last post I talked about how the media-driven Hallyu is not hitting all the right notes for everyone, especially in the North American context. To sum up, I feel that a lot of North Americans in general find South Korean media kind of hard to penetrate -- it's too much of one thing and not enough of another. A lot of my Canadian and American friends who encounter Korean dramas or pop music for the first time tend to have a somewhat negative reaction. It's too melodramatic, not gritty enough, not realistic enough, too clean, too juvenile, not sophisticated, too complicated . . . the list goes on. So then if Korean drama and pop music don't quite do it for most of us in the New World, what's the answer? Change it?

Produce 101, a currently airing hit reality/audition show wherein a ridiculously large contestant count is whittled down to a lucky few to form South Korea's next hit pop group sensation. It's essentially televising the K-pop group-forming process. Which is either awesome or terrible, depending on where your interests lie.  
No, of course not. That would be, first of all, very difficult if not impossible, as South Korean media is the way it is because it caters to Korean audiences first and foremost (obviously), and second, it would be a stupid move. K-pop and Korean dramas already have huge followings abroad -- they have found their audience, and how! The question here is how do the brains behind Korean mass cultural marketing capture the imaginations of that much larger segment of North American society that doesn't give a hoot about K-pop or K-dramas? Well, there's no easy answer, but one thing I can say for certain is that difference sells, and Koreans who are trying to "sell" Korea, as it were, to foreign audiences, would do well to remember this.

What do I mean by this? Speaking as someone who has spent considerable time both in South Korea and outside of it, historically (I mean in the last four decades or so) in attempting to sell itself to outsiders, South Korea has had a tendency to try to sell "relatability." For example, in the past Korea's international slogan might as well have been "South Korea: We're just like you! Invest in us!" It's no secret that in the early '90s South Korean companies were attempting to ride the Japanese tech industry boom by sometimes resorting to ambiguous marketing in regard to the national origin of their companies. I remember talking to a Korean friend of mine some years ago who told me that in its earlier days, being mistaken for a Japanese company was one of Samsung's marketing strategies in North America, before South Korea became a tech powerhouse on its own terms.

This is exactly what it looks like: a stuffy politician/business-suit type talking to an audience about K-pop. Believe it or not, it's serious business.
Hallyu is not an accident either. The popularity of K-pop and K-drama is not merely superficial; it means real dividends for Korean corporate entities. It is "soft power" at its most effective. If a Canadian person gets invested in Korean shows and music, they will likely get invested in Korean entertainers. Korean entertainers endorse Korean products. Even if the equation is not so cut-and-dried in every instance, those who take an interest in things Korean will likely be more inclined to buy Korean next time they need a new TV or smartphone, especially since Samsung and LG are such major players in these industries and many take their names as a sign of quality. This is to say nothing of potential tourism dividends as well. I've met all sorts of people who come to South Korea just to see Korean pop acts or visit locations from their favourite dramas. As I've said before, Hallyu works.

But Hallyu doesn't work because Korean media is similar to foreign media, but rather because it's different. North Americans who like K-pop and K-dramas like them not because they remind them of  their favourite HBO or Netflix original series but because they don't. They are looking for something different -- an alternative. For example, a lot of friends of mine who like K-pop currently lament what they perceive to be a recent overemphasis on "sexy groups" in the K-pop industry. Many of them like K-pop because it's a squeaky-clean break from the hypersexualized North American pop music industry. It's more innocent, more pure, maybe even reminiscent of a simpler time in their lives or in the national memory (I suppose that depends on when they were born). Many view the rise of overt "sexiness" in K-pop as a half-baked attempt to cater to foreign audiences, which, if that's true, is quite ironic, because it seems to be backfiring. I believe that dramas attract foreign audiences for similar reasons. They tend to be more romantic and fanciful than their North American counterparts. The bottom line is that K-pop and K-drama sell in North America because they're "something else," and while this is likely not the case for Hallyu in the rest of Asia, I am convinced that this is the truth for North America (and probably Europe too, to some degree).

While K-pop can be equally as contrived and formulaic as its American counterpart, that some view the K-pop as a superior product is telling of its status as a worthy alternative in the minds of many.  
Why explain this at all? Because I've seen so much evidence that would suggest that those who perpetuate Hallyu -- that marketing-savvy bunch -- seem to think that the reason Korean media has been so successful in North America is because it resembles North American media. The best example I can offer up as evidence of this was the inclusion of Snoop Dogg in PSY's second failed follow-up (at least, it failed internationally) to Gangnam Style, Hangover. The former became a huge success in North America because it was something totally bizarre to a lot of North Americans. Gangnam Style was a spectacle -- funny and weird and wholly unexpected from a country that many North Americans had pegged as a humourless land of overworked salarymen and/or stoic tradition. The follow up, Gentleman, failed because it was more of the same, and Hangover appeared, at least to me, to be an attempt to try to win back PSY's supposedly massive North American following by adding a face most North Americans would recognize, which I feel had the opposite effect. "I don't need to watch this Korean guy to see Snoop Dogg rapping over a half-assed hook. There's plenty of artists doing that back home, and I can actually understand what they're saying" is the line of thought in my head, anyway.

So herein lies the problem: many South Korean media marketers seem to think that producing things that are similar to North American things directed at North Americans is an effective way to generate North American interest in South Korea. I disagree. In the last post I said we would look at South Korea's eastern neighbour, Japan. We will do that now.

I think it's safe to assume that most people, Japanese included, have not seen a kabuki play in its entirety, yet most people in the world could likely identify this picture as being an example of kabuki. Isn't that interesting?  
I shall pose a question. Do you know anyone who has never heard of following things? Samurai, geisha, ninja, sushi, sumo wrestling, anime, ramen, kimono, judo, karate, kabuki theatre. Personally, I can't say I do. Even my 95-year-old English-born granny could identify all of these things if quizzed on them. Japanese material culture is super-pervasive, and this didn't all happen by accident either. While many elements of Japanese culture did receive exposure because America fought a war there and essentially took over the country for a few decades (remember, they did that in South Korea as well, more or less), interest in things Japanese was helped along in no small part by a little thing called nihonjinron. Nihonjinron is complicated but it was essentially a body of media produced as the result of a soft-power movement to popularize Japanese culture abroad, by translating and exporting Japanese media and other forms of material culture, coinciding with Japan's "postwar economic miracle" in the 1960s and '70s. It was a huge success and its results can still be felt to this day, because everyone knows what sumo wrestling and kabuki theatre are. (I mean, if you really think about it, why do we know that these things are? When was the last time you were asked to go see a kabuki play?!

Hallyu and nihonjinron have much in common. They both ushered in a major increase in international accessibility to the national spaces they represent, in the form of translated media and mass culture. They both followed a period of considerable economic growth. They have both succeeded in generating real interest and investment, both socially and economically, in the countries of their origin. There is, however. a fundamental difference that sets them apart. Hallyu seems to be all about building up South Korea as being on par, economically and/or socially, with the "developed world." "Look! Our television shows are well produced and boast expensive budgets like yours! Our pop stars are attractive and say, 'Hey, yo, dawg,' and star in flashy videos, just like yours! We are not so different, you and I!"

A picture that needs no introduction. It's sumo wrestling. You know what this is when you see it.
Nihonjinron, on the other hand, was all about setting Japan apart from, well, everyone, and from where I'm standing, it seems to have worked out much better. After all, most foreigners go to places like Japan and South Korea as tourists to see and experience things that they can't see at home.

In the past few years multiple Korean friends of mine have lamented that South Korea lacks anything unique to really sell it abroad. "Why are you interested in Korea, Alex?" they ask me. "We don't have any cool traditional things like Japan!" But that is, of course, not true. South Korea boasts more than 4,000 years of history and tradition. As a civilization you don't hang around for four millennia without developing some unique traits and traditions.The major difference between Japan and South Korea, however, at least in this respect, is that the Japanese government, and interested Japenese private entities and philanthropists, have invested big bucks in perpetuating and marketing their "unique traditions" both domestically and abroad, whereas similar entities in South Korea have done so to a much lesser degree.

If you have worked within the Hallyu movement as I have, you know that in many instances there is some degree of government funding behind things like K-pop conventions, K-pop concerts abroad and other such Korean media-related events in foreign countries. The Korean government actually spends taxpayer money on this stuff, and for the most part it appears to be money well spent -- it's gotten real results. That being said, if South Korea hopes to be an instantly recognizable cultural force like Japan, which it seems to want to be, I feel that perhaps diversifying the cultural push could be beneficial. In other words, I'm advocating expanding the Hallyu umbrella to include all sorts of Korean traditional and cultural entities that are woefully underexposed abroad, and that I think foreign audiences might find pretty interesting. K-pop and K-drama have received disproportionate financial attention for years and I think interest is starting to plateau. It's time to diversify. To illustrate this, I present a few examples of things that should be getting a lot more attention in South Korea but for some reason or another aren't (even locally). For impact's sake I will compare them with their Japanese counterparts to show how they could be marketable.

This is what sseirum looks like. Similar to sumo, but just different enough that I think it could attract a dedicated international fan base if it had more exposure.
Ssiruem vs. Sumo

In Japan, sumo wrestling is a huge international draw that has produced international fans and enthusiasts for decades. Many tourists who can afford the fairly expensive ticket price have "attend sumo match" fairly high on their Japanese travel bucket list, and there is a wealth of foreign-language information on the sport. Also, for quite some time foreigners have competed in high-profile sumo competitions, in many cases reaching celebrity status. Sumo is a sport that consists of two often overweight men (depending on the weight class), whose training consists of eating ridiculous amounts of protein and carbs and pushing heavy things all day, getting into a ring and trying to get each other off balance through various means. It's kind of ridiculous when you think about it out of context, but it's internationally famous and extremely recognizable. It can even be a somewhat lucrative career -- it is possible make real money being a sumo wrestler in Japan.

In contrast, ssireum -- traditional Korean wrestling -- is so underexposed that many foreigners who currently live and work in South Korea don't even know it exists. This is a travesty. Ssireum shares many similarities with sumo but is just different enough that, if given the proper exposure, it could really generate its own international fan base. Ssireum is done in a large circular sandpit which is a bit bigger and more sandy than that used in sumo. The rules are very similar, the object being to throw your opponents off balance so they fall on the ground or out of the ring. One difference is that contestants are required to constantly be holding on to their opponent's sash, which is often tightly wrapped around their waist. Therefore ssireum lacks the pushing techniques present in sumo, as the contestants are not allowed to break and the emphasis is on leverage rather than bulk displacement (though sumo uses similar tactics as well). Hence, ssireum athletes by and large tend to boast a much more "athletic" physique than their bulky sumo colleagues, which could be a draw in and of itself for certain fans. Ssireum athletes often come from myriad martial arts backgrounds as well, and it is possible to witness adapted techniques from martial arts such as judo and jiujitsu being used in the sandpit.        

Sseirum is often touted as a major part of Korean tradition that has been around for eons, only you wouldn't know it because it's never advertised and rarely ever on display. Up-to-date English-language information on where one can watch ssireum contests is virtually nonexistent, and trust me, I've searched extensively. The Korean Sseirum Association hasn't updated its English web page in more than three years, and similar organizations don't even have English pages. What's more, sseirum is woefully underfunded and underexposed even in South Korea. I don't think I currently know anyone who knows where I can watch this sport, aside from on major holidays such as the lunar new year and the harvest festival, traditionally big times for sseirum in Korean tradition. As a result, sseirum has nowhere near the level of prestige or lucrativeness that sumo has in Japan, and international contestants and fans are few and far between.

This is all rather a shame as, like sumo, sseirum has all the makings of a perfect spectator sport. It's fast and kinetic and the rules are simple enough that you can figure out what's going on fairly quickly, but, also like sumo, there is also a lot of depth and technique for seasoned fans to pick apart. I'm convinced that sseirum is a criminally undermined cultural resource that could have a huge international presence if anyone cared to try to push it. I am not alone in this line of thought; many South Koreans also lament the dwindling popularity of the sport.

Talchum vs. Kabuki

Talchum. While visually quite different from kabuki, its general tone can be quite similar.
Have you ever heard of Korean mask dancing? You might have, but chances are if you're not Korean your knowledge extends as far as "It's a form of theatre wherein people wear masks and dance . . . I guess." The reliance on masks for storytelling might make talchum appear more similar to Noh theatre in Japan, but whereas Noh has its origins in the premodern Japanese aristocracy, the origins of talchum, like kabuki, lie with the peasantry. As such it tends to be a more lighthearted and humorous affair, occasionally mixing in some acrobatics and spectacle to boot. Talchum performances also boast a number of similarities to the Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte, as there are numerous stock characters, identified by different masks, that show up in their respective roles in myriad stories: the lovers, the scholar, the old man, the old woman, the harlot, the trickster, etc. Talchum has its own variations on all the classic roles. There are numerous regional plays and variations on the form. However, English-language resources beyond general information are currently sparse, making proficiency in Korean a must for anyone hoping to learn anything about talchum beyond its general premise. Finding showtimes and places where it is being performed is not impossible but does require more digging than I feel should be necessary. Even on YouTube there are few videos that really show off the complexity or narrative structure of the art form.  

By contrast, there is a wealth of information in myriad languages about kabuki theatre and it's relatively easy to find out where performances are being held, as there a numerous dedicated kabuki theatres in Japan with seasonal programming. Kabuki fandom is huge both locally and abroad, with kabuki connoisseurs and enthusiasts spanning the globe and kabuki visuals being immediately recognizable, especially the red lion character, which has become visually synonymous with the art form. Kabuki actors are also fully recognized national cultural assets, as they come from established lineages and are frequently cast in television dramas and movies. While it might be hard to imagine talchum actors filling prominent roles in Korean film or dramas, I feel that a lot more could be done to make this art form at least more accessible to outsiders. Talchum is visually unique and, if you're lucky enough to see a performance, can be quite a magical and otherworldly experience, like kabuki. Like sseirum, I think that if talchum was given more exposure it would surely find an audience abroad and a bigger one locally.

Traditional Performance Troupes

A picture that I can actually take credit for. This was from the Namsadang performance I saw last week, wherein acrobats are posing while floral confetti rains down upon them. 
Last week I attended a show by the Anseong-based performance group Namsadang on their home turf, and I was treated to an energetic, charming and very funny two hours of folksongs, dance, acrobatics and comedy both physical and linguistic. It was a lot of fun and immediately endearing. The crowd was rather large and I was one of two foreigners present. That's fine (it's not exactly high season right now for tourists), but I wouldn't even have known I could see the show if I hadn't visited Anseong and asked about it. There is quite a bit of information on the web about that specific group, but again, it would be tricky to find it if you didn't know what to look for. While Namsadang is a mainstay of Anseong city and has its own dedicated show space and annual festival, many similar groups elsewhere struggle with dwindling attendance and lack of interest, as well as a rather small pool from which to recruit new talent. This is really a shame, because I think that foreign audiences would love this stuff. I strongly believe that if even just a bit more national revenue was spent on grants to supplement training and advertising budgets to give these groups more exposure, this could be a huge draw as well. It's also about as uniquely Korean as you can get.

Contemporary Art and Music

A fantastic book that is currently available from many a retailer, sampling some of the big names in the Korean contemporary art scene. Check out its dedicated website here.
With Seoul Fashion Week attracting much international attention, I think it's fairly obvious that more and more folks are realizing that South Korea has a lot to offer in the creative realm. The sheer overabundance of information on K-pop and K-drama virtually eclipses other art forms in South Korea, to the point where many folks who do not dare to pry are totally unaware that a massive indie/alternative music scene even exists. While exposure is increasing significantly, that South Korean tourism entities are not pushing Seoul as an edgy, hipster-friendly mecca of artistic innovation is a missed opportunity. This is especially because "fringe" acts have become such an it thing in North America that I feel a lot of folks who are turned off by K-pop's glossy and formulaic elements could find a lot to love in the South Korean indie scene, which is just "Korean enough" to grab those looking for something different. Exposure is increasing daily and there are currently fairly large contingents of South Korean indie music fans outside of Korea, but most of them stumble across this stuff by accident. More could be done to at least show outsiders that cool fringe communities do actually exist here. Similarly, South Korea has for some time boasted a similarly active and vibrant contemporary art scene that I feel is also underexposed. While Japan is often praised for being a mecca for art and music experimentation, South Korea also has a lot going on that is just not represented as well as it could be.

I shall end the list here. I'm sure there is much I could add, but I think you get the idea. I feel that Hallyu as a thing that chiefly promotes K-pop and drama as the soul of Korea has sort of run its course. K-pop and drama have become so big in the communities where it's flourished that its fandom is more or less self-sufficient -- fans will keep producing new fans. But there are many other segments of South Korean culture that I feel could really capture the hearts and minds of would-be travellers and aficionados. Thus I propose an expansion of the Hallyu umbrella and a shift in Korean cultural marketing to try to sell Korea as the unique space that it really is -- a shift from "We are similar enough that you can be comfortable if you come here" to "You can't get this anywhere else." It sure worked out well for Japan . . .

Join me next time when I talk about some other topic that I haven't thought of yet.

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