ROK Drop just blogged this in, and this story about the drop in foreign tourism and the heat the mayor of Seoul is getting is almost funny, were it not so sad and predicable.
I've participated in paid surveys. I've participated in paid generation content for promoting the city. I've been paid to comb through the Seoul City Hall web site and look for things to fix. I've seen proposals by the city that were as dumb as dirt, but no one would just come out and say it. For me, here's the simple answer, for which I don't need a consultant fee:
Korean slogans/campaigns/branding are so full of what Koreans want foreigners to see that they have absolutely no idea what aspects of the society/culture might actually be interesting to foreigners. Coupled with that, foreigners are almost never given any decision-making power in planning any of this, except for oodles spent to design one of the dumbest slogans and brands I have ever heard of. Since, umm, birth. Really. "Korea, Sparkling." Let's not hem and haw -- we all know it's stupid, and we knew it from Day 1. Everyone, that is, except for the Korean side.
Koreans are generally so concerned with false notions of the "national image" that it handcuffs any attempts to show what is actually interesting about Korea. Relatedly, Koreans are so concerned with looking good to the "better" nations with high numbers of blue eyes and tall buildings that they forget what is good about their own society/culture.
Koreans planners fundamentally misunderstand "foreigners." What "we" think about isn't at all what most Koreans think "we" think about. For example, every time there's a large-scale international event, the city tries to get rid of street vendors, because they think it makes Korean look "dirty" or "backwards." That about the dumbest idea there is and a sign of how out-of-touch the city is.
There's a reason this concept is hard to explain in Korean, except for nearby words (e.g. 진부하다 or 촌스럽다) that still miss the core of this very useful word in English. Cheesiness and melodrama and the very useful Konglish word "오바" (something being "overdone") can play well in Korea, or at least not raise hackles. But sit a German or French sophisticate in front of a promotional video running on television with leaden, Big Brother (or alternatively, sultry-but-saccherine female) voiceovers, graphics whooshing in from all sides of the screen, and synthesized orchestra hits punctuated by superlative/hyperbolic phrases and descriptions such as "XXX-est in Asia" or "sparkling" and expect a roll of the eyes. This aesthetic is what many westerners have an allergy to, but to which Koreans and other Asian countries tend to have so high a tolerance that its actual existence is invisible. And this mode of hyperbolic-yet-vague-and-general mode of thinking/expression is built into the Korean language itself -- anyone who translates from Korean to English knows this. (If you doubt, translate "우수한 우리 나라. 밝은 문화, 밝은 미래" into anything a Westerner might consume without wanting to upchuck) Whether the fault of the language or modes of aesthetic expression, almost every promotional product made by a Korean organizational body is completely shot through with this "cheese aesthetic" -- and it kills. But Koreans rarely notice it. It's the difference between a bad stock photo image and a slick entry in the Absolut advertising campaign.
You put these together and what do you get?
-- A "Korea, Sparkling" campaign in which www.KoreaSparkling.com, which is the URL for a very expensive branded phrase, huge media blitz, and ongoing media campaign is all IN KOREAN, and moreover is actually a PR guidelines document that lists the rules for usage of the slogan and materials...in Korean. It's what amounts to an INTERNAL MEMO that might be understandably linked from a splash page for the campaign or something -- umm, in ENGLISH -- as the front page itself. You click on the "Korea, Sparkling" logo to the top left and you are taken to a very Naver-esque portal site for tourism within Korea. OK. That should at least be the opening splash page, and the internal PR memo page should be a link, but OK. Except that portal site, with multimedia links, stories of trips, promotions of tours to take, etc. is in KOREAN. Huh?
-- Rain showing up in certain ads and videos, an example of Koreans sending their best and most famous guy to shill for the country. An honor, right? Except that 99.9% of the non-Koreans who watch this and actually control the pursestrings in the family don't have any idea who this guy is. Is the target market 60-year-old European retirees with time and money to burn, or the random European 14-year-old kids who are K-POP fans? Hmm.
-- A promotional video designed for K-12 kids as part of a video set of "Countries of the World" or some such. Korea was asked to prepare their entry, and I consulted on it. It had the requisite whooshing graphics, authoritative narrations, and hyperbolic bragging. For like 6th-graders who don't know Korea from Cambodia, and have Ritalin-controlled short attention spans, are they really going to listen to some guy saying, "KOREA. With a land mass of X,XXX,XXX square kilometers..." or "With an IT infrastructure and Internet connectivity that is the most developed and fastest in the world..." Whew. I suggested they say something like "Korea, which is the size of Illinois" since it was targeted for Americans, and instead of the semi-conductor manufacturing stock footage and people laser etching tools, they might try to go to a PC-room and show kids kicking ass at Starcraft while talking about having awesome Internet -- they reluctantly took my advice. "But they must know we are superior in..." Yawn. No one cares. But. You.
So, are we surprised the number of foreign tourists has dropped?
I certainly am not. At all.
Instead of being concerned with how much English service workers can pawn off, the cleanliness of toilets, street food stalls, or other much less important trifles, perhaps making all the materials in your multi-million-dollar ad campaign aimed at attracting foreign tourists have all its materials in ENGLISH to start with might be something to think about.
Maybe? Ya think?