The Korean National Tourism Organization seems to have no concept of how to market Korea overseas to anyone under the age of 40. Although there are problems with its anaemic print advertising, and with its boring and complicated website, the key embarrassment to the organization has got to be its video advertising.
In video after video, the KNTO ― and other related organizations ― has tried to sell a Korea nobody overseas is interested in; or at least, nobody who is young enough to want to travel here independently. Cowboys ask for bibimbab. Scientists examine greenhouses. A voice urges you to “relax with a cup of natural tea.” Dated puns like “Seoul: 600-year-young metropolis” are used.
The only indication that the KNTO is even remotely interested in young people visiting comes from the endless use of plasticized K-pop stars, personalities who mean very little to non-Koreans, and virtually nothing to Westerners.
The key problem with the ads as they are is they are boring. There is no sense of adventure in any of them. In India’s brilliant Incredible India ads, singles and couples are shot being surprised, elated, mesmerized, even scared and confused ― in a way that signals excitement and adventure. Think of the ways the KNTO could translate these into Korea.
Take a single, attractive young person, of any race or nationality (except Korean, obviously) and put them through a series of only-in-Korea experiences.
She begins by riding on a fast ferry to Deokjeokdo, the wind whipping through her hair, surrounded by Koreans of all ages enjoying themselves. The next scene it’s night, and she’s dancing and laughing with her friends ― both Korean and foreign ― around a beach bonfire on the island.
Then she’s diving off the southern coast of Jejudo Island, admiring the fish, and then surprised as one smacks against her goggles. In the next scene she’s trying ― with great difficulty ― to mount a horse, Mt. Hallasan in the background, the golden rice fields around her.
Next she’s buying a fish from a smiling old woman at the Busan fish market, then looks confused as she and a friend try to figure out how to cook the thing on an open grill, flipping it from side to side.
Another food scene: she sits on the floor in front of an enormous table with 50 side dishes, and asks a mildly exasperated owner repeatedly. “What’s this? How about this? And what’s this? And what is this?”
Next she’s surrounded by young people in Hongdae, drinking beer in the park with her new friends, and then dancing in a techno club, or watching a punk band tear it up at a live show.
In another drinking scene, an older man or woman attempts to show her how to properly pour soju. “No, two hands under, then hold the glass like this, now two hands hold the bottle, no, no, not like this …”
She looks wide-eyed at the ROK soldiers at the DMZ, stuck in their ROK-ready poses, her amazed reflection in their mirrored sunglasses. In her cheap but funky backpackers’ hotel room, she wipes away a tear with her friend as they watch a family drama on their televisions.
She rides her bicycle down the Han River, Yeouido behind her. She sweats and pants her way up Mt. Bukhansan, but is rewarded at the top with a view of Korea, and shares a bottle of makkeoli with an old man.
She haggles for a bottle of ginseng wine in Namdaemun market, catches a fish off the coast of Sokcho and gets lost among the throngs in Myeongdong.
Finally, exhausted from all the adventure, she stretches out on the grass, smiles and contemplates the country around her. When the camera spirals out from her, we see she’s actually at the top of Namsan, N Seoul Tower behind her along with traditional dancers and musicians. The city and country spirals away from her: Korea!
The whole thing could be set to a Korean chillwave techno beat of some kind, with traditional Korean instruments thrown in ― but without the tired, corporate sounds of Psy, the Wonder Girls or any of the other manufactured plastic performers of Gangnam. (In fact, let’s just have no Gangnam at all in the ad.)
Korea has so much to attract young, single, adventurous people. Japan and China get plenty of them ― there’s no reason why Korea can’t rope in much of that business.
The KNTO has some major successes to speak of. Their 1330 tourist helpline is invaluable to anyone here who doesn’t speak fluent Korean. Their Tourist Information booths are helpful and the staff is very friendly.
But KNTO advertising, as far as I or anyone I know has seen, fails completely to show the fun, exciting or adventurous side of Korea. This could change with just a bit of imagination, a bit of fun and a bit of ignoring what the ajoshi in charge thinks Korea should look like to the world.
By Dave Hazzan
Dave Hazzan is a Canadian teacher and writer in Ilsan, Goyang City. He has published extensively in Korea and is an avid traveler. ― Ed.