What makes German different from French? What sets Gertrude apart from Francois? Why are Germans renowned more for meticulous engineering and the French more for high fashion? How is national identity formed? Is it something that actually matters?
It is generally accepted today that we are equally a product of our nature and our nurture, of our genes and our culture. So, the different genes of the Goths and the Gauls start Gertrude and Francois off on their varying tracks. But then their environment has an equal effect on them as they grow up. Their society will have been partly formed by those different genes, but it will also be affected by things such as the climate, the landscape and political history. The German landscape used to be dominated by dark forests, reaching only as far south as the northern Alps. France was lighter deciduous forest, merging into the drier, sunny Mediterranean climate in the south, where their language also came from.
But the crucial point is that these differences are only observed from outside. Within a culture everything is seen as the norm. "I don’t have an accent, everyone else does." "This is the way things are here, they do it differently over there." You only appreciate the nuances when you go there: the smells, the air, the food, the shops, the sound of voices. So we can’t pinpoint our own culture, someone else has to, someone with a sufficiently objective view. In our need to comprehend and grasp the enormous complexities of the world around us, we naturally simplify. We like to put things into neat little boxes, so the breezy Frenchman wears a beret, speaks nasally and drinks wine, while the dour German speaks gutturally and drinks beer. We know that these are gross stereotypes, but they act as superficial signifiers to create order in our minds.
But then the advertising media exploit the stereotypes further to sell tourism or regional products. The problem is that they have to do this because this is what we expect: if they sold a completely different story we would not believe it because it would not fit our expectations and our prejudices, so, the dumbing down intensifies.
A key aspect of advertising is branding and this is something with which I have serious issues. I see branding as a cleverly constructed facade that shows you only what it wants you to see, while hiding all the rest. It is like the street frontage of a Wild West town that bears no resemblance to the shoddy shacks hidden behind (and the Wild West analogy seems uncomfortably appropriate to me). At best, it promotes only the most attractive aspects of what it is selling, but at its worst it is perfectly capable of inventing them. Our most shameful lie was "100% Pure New Zealand". It worked because everyone – here but particularly overseas – wanted to believe it. And so we all become willingly complicit in the deception.
And now the "hidden persuaders" are let loose on the branding of countries. It really scares me that the overseas image of who I am can be controlled by a marketing agency. I accept that today's 'creatives' are far more sophisticated and subtle than those of the last century who would have sold the Gauloise-smoking onion seller from France. But that also makes them more dangerous. When does marketing become propaganda and whom can we trust to decide? This is not something that should have anything to do with the 'market', where all is justified in the ability to make a profit (for a few).
So what does it have to do with? In a word: culture. On the small scale, I believe in a communications strategy that allows the innate integrity of a company to shine through with complete honesty, which means openly showing everything. On the national scale, it means an unselfconscious expression of who we are, warts, beauty spots and all. 'Expression' is one key word because it is artists who do this, not manipulators from the commercial world. And the other key word is 'unselfconscious' because as soon as it becomes self-conscious it becomes contrived, a knowingly forced ruse to achieve a goal. I like to compare the process of artistic expression in this context with that of making wine. A Sauvignon grape grown in France will produce a Bordeaux wine with a distinct and identifiable flavour. The same vine grown here produces a quite different wine. This is because our terroir – our climate, soil, sunshine – change the way the grape matures, and because our vintners make different choices culturally. If all those factors are allowed to have an influence, the wine will, by default, be different. So too the work of the artist who imbibes all that is around him or her: the landscape, the climate, the history, the cultural mix, etc. Their work will also, by default, exude the cultural aroma of their land. But they will not be aware of this, they will not see their own differences from within their culture; what they are doing is simply natural and unselfconscious. That is how our identity is expressed. It takes someone from outside to hear the accent.
So I strongly believe that this cultural identity is not something that we should worry about, or even think about. As soon as we do, it becomes self-conscious and contrived. What artists and creative people do need to do is stop looking north, stop trying to follow trends and think that we need to fit in with them, that we are only followers (Key's worst put-down). We must simply speak our own language, with our own accent; tell our own stories – our own mix of Polynesian, European, Asian; be proud of who we are in every aspect, but not pushy or arrogant with it; let our amazing and unique land and people live through our words, images and sounds; then stand back and let others articulate what makes a Kiwi, which they will now do with respect. In that way we will be totally unique and original and not need the manufactured spin of branding.
- This piece was originally published on Idealog.