Last week saw the release of two notable tourism videos: Air New Zealand’s Fantastical Journey safety video and Introducing Wellington from the city’s local government. Seeing them both got me thinking about tourism-related promo campaigns more generally.
Is it just me or are our tourism promos usually a bit corny? Living in Wellington, New Zealand, I suppose it’s difficult to look upon local promos with neutrality – they usually inspire varying degrees of cultural cringe.
When our tourism-related promos go wrong, its often due to a failure to innovate, an excess of pseudo-emotive cheeseburger or a lazy ‘feature-oriented’ approach. For example, the Open Space, Hearts and Minds video (acknowledging this covers more than just tourism) has had quite a bit of airplay but it seems quite cheesy and generic - it reaches a little too hard for sincerity. The 100% Pure Campaign was ground-breaking in its inception and has been arguably one of the most successful tourism marketing campaigns ever. But the content feels like its starting to become a bit ‘meh’ through a lack of innovation (exhibit A). (It’s also attracting more negative attention as being inconsistent with observed environmental deterioration.)
Looking back, there are a few examples of inspired creativity in the mists of our nation’s modern tourism history. My all-time favourite is Hugh MacDonald’s wonderful cinematic triptych ‘This is New Zealand’, made for the 1970 Osaka World Expo (to be watched full-screen). After an intro infected with the percussive intensity of a Len Lye, the combination of Sibelius's Karelia Suite and an array of stunning helicopter shots conjure a bold reverence for New Zealand’s landscape. It’s difficult to imagine how impressive this would have appeared in its original context, long before we all became saturated with video content.
While I may have suffered a cardiac arrest watching it ten years ago, I’ve developed a soft spot for the dorky magnificence of Wellington’s 1991 campaign. For me, this is the New Zealand tourism spiritual sibling of Moms on the Net. In fact 0:13-0:15 may be the single greatest moment in New Zealand comedy – I mean, what about this guy!?!
By all accounts, the Air NZ safety videos have been a successful marketing innovation (even if forcing the same content over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again into your customers’ eyeballs does seem silly). I just thank the gods we are through the LOTR themed ones. The LOTR films are superb and have done wonders for New Zealand tourism, but locals have grown weary of the extent to which they have defined the world’s conception of New Zealand. Murray’s office poster in Flight of the Conchords captured this nicely (see above).
Selling places, not cars
Perhaps the main mistake city tourism promos make is to look at the destination as a collection of ‘features’ that need to be showcased. There are numerous examples like this one and this one. It’s also true of the recent 'Introducing Wellington' video.
While the destination may indeed have good cafes, restaurants, museums etc, you could also say the same for a gazillion cities around the world – most cities claim to have a great mixture of cultural and leisure offerings. But the reality is, for international visitors, most of whom have already visited some of the world’s great cities, our small scale urban offerings are likely to underwhelm by comparison. This is not to say we don’t have good stuff; we do, but let’s face it, our cafes do not a unique destination make. Further, in portraying a city as a collection of generic features, we often fail to express what is genuinely unique about the place. In short, a city is a not like a car - it’s a complex cultural ecosystem.
“That’s incredibly wise and all very well”, I hear you saying, “but how do you do it right then? (and I do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr Statler or Waldorf)”. Well, first, it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of these videos are completed on relatively tight budgets such that there is not much scope to employ the best creative talent and tech to push limits – but that doesn’t explain the lack of creativity in most national tourism videos, which typically have large budgets. And you don’t need a large budget to make good content – more than anything, you need good ideas.
Financial constraints aside, the best videos have one thing in common in my view – they all take some risks. They don’t try and ape the tired tropes of a creatively bankrupt Hollywood cinematic vernacular. Instead, they wrestle bravely with an essential artistic challenge: to express and not to copy. The best recent example is This is Sweden, which aims to do exactly the same thing as our own Open Hearts campaign. Do you see the difference?
If you are moved by the Swede’s take when others fall flat, ask yourself why that might be. Notice that it focuses on themes of natural and human beauty which seem truthful. It doesn’t say that Sweden has restaurants, churches and museums – we know Sweden has these things. With an emphasis on landscape, it authentically portrays Sweden as an open, liberal and diverse society without the extra side serving of cheese. It’s one of the few promos I’ve seen that makes me want to visit the place more. (Another good example is Iceland’s Ask Gudmundur campaign.)
Okay, okay, but why should I care – they’re just promos, man
A focus on authenticity is part of a broader tourism mega-trend towards “authen-tricity” (authenticity-centricity) that the industry is just starting to grasp. It’s based around a realisation as to the evolution of travel or, more accurately, what makes travel meaningful to the modern traveller.
In times gone by, long-distance travel was much less affordable. In the 1960s, your average middle class New Zealand family might have hoped for one or two significant international trips in their lifetime. Travel was often conceptualised as a collection of exotic landmarks. We would travel an epic distance to see the pyramids/Eiffel Tower/Colosseum and have our picture taken before its magnificence. In this era, these landmarks had perhaps a greater power to affect visitors than they do today as, in our perceptions, the world has grown smaller and these objects, closer. We have been bombarded with imagery and open access to information about these objects many times prior to our attendance in the flesh.
But while the technological and cultural landscape has changed over time, our conception of what it is to travel has been strangely resistant to change. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that we can feel a strange emptiness when coming upon a major historical landmark: “Yep, there it is, just like in the pictures”. This emptiness is the dissonance between the magical promise of travel and the often hucksterish, lonely and plastic nature of the reality. It’s the difference between this:
Brian Chesky’s (AirBnB CEO) keynote address at the 2016 launch of Trips articulated this nicely. At around 5:00, he talks about how, while mid 20th century travel posters would “promise travel that was an easy escape to magical worlds”, the reality on arrival was that “you’re in a line, you’re lonely, you’re an outsider, you’re often doing things locals never do”. He goes on to say that “for many people, travel is easy, but it is not magical” and, finally that “the magic is in the people – it’s all about immersing in local communities”. Perhaps there is nothing new in this, but the challenge to find the magic of travel is becoming more acute as travel becomes progressively more commoditised.
The take-away from this is that we need to keep hunting for ways for travellers to experience more authentic connections with the places they visit, both in our tourism promise and the fulfillment thereof. We need to be more conscious of the plasticisation of travel and how to guard against it. In this regard, we have a lot of work to do.