By NOELLE NICOLLS
Tribune Features Editor
SUPER Bowl XLVII was orchestrated as a contest between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, however that contest was not the only showdown taking place. The global advertising war games were simultaneously staged during the championship event. Interest in the tradition of Super Bowl commercials has grown to such an extent that it almost overshadows interest in the game. For some global brands, the Bahamas included, Super Bowl is hallowed ground.
The Bahamas joined the advertising war games once again, unveiling its 2013 marketing campaign “Behold” with a 60-second advertising spot. This year, however, the Bahamas was not the only Caribbean country using the Super Bowl to vie for increased market share in the Caribbean travel market. Its largest English speaking competitor – Jamaica – was also on stage, literally.
The brand Jamaica ambush was led by pre-Super Bowl viral chatter about the Volkswagen “Get Happy” commercial featuring reggae music by Jamaican recording artist Jimmy Cliff and dialogue in imitation Jamaican patois. The brand Jamaica hype was sustained by the Halftime Show performance of international recording artist Beyonce. Her highly anticipated show included a performance of “Baby Boy”, Beyonce’s dutty wining dancehall duet with Jamaican recording artist Sean Paul.
All of this action gave rise to a lot of chatter in the social sphere about culture.
Imitation is said to be the greatest form of flattery, so from an egocentric perspective, Beyonce’s performance and the VW commercial engendered an undeniable sense of pride in many Jamaicans. However, even as Jamaicans rallied behind VW, many were uncomfortable with the ads simplistic representation of Jamaica’s stereotypical laidback culture. Jamaican-born Christopher John Farley, writing on the Wall Street Journal blog, said: “It’s off-putting to see the island spirit used as a punch line; the Jamaican aesthetic is founded on positive vibration, not mindless happiness.”
From a marketing perspective, mindless happiness and shallow stereotypes sell well, especially to American audiences whose tastes are not always as sophisticated as one might like. This is the problem for both the Bahamas and Jamaica, and everyone engaged in tourism enterprise the world over, the commercialisation of culture debases culture. There is a tradeoff when a country packages and sells its identity for the almighty tourist dollar no matter how culturally empowered a nation might be.
Australia is a case in point. The Australian Tourist Board launched its famous “Put another shrimp on the Barbie” campaign in 1984 with Paul Hogan (before he became globally known as Crocodile Dundee). Speaking of the campaign, Australian born artist Melinda Brown said: “it was the most cringe worthy drivel reducing the image of Australians to a lowest common denominator of ‘no worries mate mindlessness’; the reduction of an entire population to an asinine reality”.
In the long run, the campaign was defended based on its success in market terms. Prior to its launch, Australia fell around 78 on the “most desired” vacation destination list for Americans. It became number 7 just three months after the campaign launched. It later jumped to the top of the “dream vacation” list for Americans, staying there for most of the two following decades, according to research from Total Destination Marketing.
The Bahamas has usually been able to defend its decisions with similar “show-me-the-money” data. Sun, sand and sea has been a reliable marketing message for more than six decades, simply because that is the spark that motivates our American audiences to travel. These campaigns have resulted in millions and millions of tourists travelling to the Bahamas, pumping millions and millions into the Bahamian economy, which after all is the objective of the marketing strategy.
But still, Bahamians are not comfortable with this image being the extent to which they are represented globally. As with the Australians and Jamaicans in the examples above, Bahamians have a much fuller concept of who they are as a people and wish to see themselves represented in all of their abundance. Sun, sand and sea is perceived as a shallow concept of who we are, considering the richness of our culture and heritage.
If we truly seek to elevate the status of culture, I question whether we should be more concerned about a marketing strategy directed towards an external audience or a cultural renaissance within the minds and spirits of the Bahamian people.
There is no doubt many Bahamians have a burning desire to self-actualize culturally. Every time we see ourselves represented through the lens of sun, sand and sea it makes us feel invisible as a people. The Super Bowl showdown gnawed at that soft spot a little extra this year, because of Jamaica’s cultural ambush.
There are Bahamians who understand, regardless of the value they place on our natural endowments, that there is great value in who we are as a people: our art, culture and heritage. Those dimensions of our Bahamian-ness bring a sense of fulfilment to the human spirit and call for recognition and celebration. This is the fundamental message behind the 2020 vision articulated by Jackson Burnside to see more visitors come to the Bahamas for art, culture and heritage than those who come for sun, sand and sea. This vision speaks to more than just a marketing campaign; it is speaking to a much needed Bahamian cultural renaissance.
There are many Bahamians, myself included, who are mobilized in support of this vision. But as a society there has been no national dialogue about its meaning and power. Many people do not understand the virtue of the cause, and many people are barking up the wrong tree for answers.
Every Bahamian should ask the question, what am I doing towards the development of the arts, the elevation of our culture and the preservation of our heritage? And then ask: If I do not value my own culture; if I am not invested in the development of Bahamian cultural enterprise, why would the foreigners be?
Last year I purchased my first piece of Bahamian art. It was a stunning acrylic painting by Marco Mullings from his “Dab” collection. Through his piece I saw myself in spiritual contemplation behind the open face of Marco’s textured sunflower. It felt empowering to support a Bahamian artist in that way. But if as a society, our walls are not lined with artwork from Bahamians then why should we demand such a standard from the Atlantis’ of the world.
To make peace with the burning desire some of us have have to self-actualize culturally, Bahamians must start looking within. And we must stop looking to the tourism industry as if it were the cultural arbiter for the Bahamas.
I am not one to believe the fulfilment of this vision lies in the hands of the tourism industry, as if a few images of conch salad and Junkanoo in a commercial would substantively change our current state of affairs. How we are represented abroad does play a major role in what people desire to see or experience, but the fundamental factor for me is actually who we are and how we live.
Are we a people who value our culture? Are we a people who respect our heritage? Are we a people who invest in and consume our own art? We have many people who pay lip service to these ideas but contribute very little to the development of culture. I long for the day when the Department of Culture has a budget to compare with the Ministry of Tourism; when 95 per cent of Culture’s budget is not allocated to Junkanoo parades; when the private sector gets with it and starts financing cultural production.
And this is the lesson of Jamaica. For even though Jamaica has been dogged with negative images of crime and poverty; and even though the Jamaica government has only recently caught on to supporting the cultural industries, Jamaica’s cultural brand is still so recognized that everyone from Beyonce, Volkswagen, to Snoop Lion (nee Dog) wants to be associated with it. From a cultural perspective, it is an envious position.
But how did Jamaica achieve such global recognition for its culture? Was it that their Ministry of Tourism understood something that our ministry seems not to? No. In fact it has nothing to do with the business of tourism altogether, and everything to do with the way in which Jamaicans express, celebrate and consume their own culture.
Without a doubt, Rastafari and reggae music – both indigenous Jamaican expressions – have been the main vehicles for the spread and popularization of Jamaican culture globally. But underpinning the global appeal of reggae music, Rastafari philosophies and the Jamaican aesthetic is a genuine appreciation and celebration of the Jamaican vernacular.
This is thanks to the breakthrough work of characters like Ms Lou, the audacious Jamaican poet, folklorist, writer, educator of the early 1900s. Lousie Bennett-Coverley opened the door for the mainstreaming of a vernacular sound that was uniquely Jamaican, the mainstreaming of a grassroots aesthetic. In an age of officialdom where vernacular conversation in public arenas was confined to ceremonial spaces like independence, Ms Lou expanded the boundaries with her unapologetic style.
Over the decades, Jamaica has matured culturally to a point where there is a high valuation of the local. So much so that in the world of music, the average artist in Jamaica is trying to “bus” local first before going global. And demand is high enough in the local market that those artists who only have local appeal still find a means to keep active and to sustain themselves.
This is not to deny the persistence of a certain high brow, low brow class politics that still exists in Jamaican culture; however, what predominates is the acceptance of a Jamaican aesthetic that is authentic to the degree that it is localized in the Jamaican experience.
The complete opposite is true in the Bahamas, where the perceived road to success is through a foreign highway, and even then you only have a fighting chance. And the domestic market seems incapable of providing a sustainable livelihood for artists, because Bahamians are simply not prolific consumers of things Bahamian.
Jamaicans on the other hand are not only producing in prolific volumes, they are consuming in a very local way. If you were to survey the audiences at the highest profile Jamaican events – Jamaica Jazz and Blues, Reggae Sumfest, Sting, Independence Weekend, Calabash Literary Festival, Rebel Salute, Restaurant Week, Reggae Marathon – you would find that a large majority of the patrons are Jamaicans.
Jamaican culture is constantly being reinforced not because of some marketing machinery, but because Jamaican people are constantly engaged in cultural expression and they are their own consumers of culture. This produces a certain vibrancy that is both grounding and infectious.
Not everything about the Jamaican story is translatable to another context, and not everything can be reproduced institutionally. The poverty factor, for example, is an example of this. Some cultural scholars say poverty has been the major driving force behind the proliferation of reggae music. Poverty created a certain independence of spirit (which often happens when people feel they have nothing to lose). It fueled a desire to be seen, to be heard and understood. It bred a certain audacity of spirit that was expressed through word, sound power.
Through music Jamaicans created a platform for the people to speak and to be heard, to tell their stories and to speak on behalf of others, in the interest of justice, healing, political activism, commerce or the sheer pleasure of performance. Music was essentially the Jamaican cultural solution to the human condition.
I am not romanticizing Jamaican culture, for as a friend said: “We (Jamaicans) feel like a complete people except that we are poor. We appreciate our cinema, our music, our culture; we feel complete except that we don’t have any money.” It is ironic that Jamaicans feel complete except that they are poor. Whereas Bahamians are rich except that they feel empty.
What we can learn from Jamaica’s experience is the importance of developing the arts, celebrating our culture and heritage outside the frame of reference of tourism; engaging in cultural enterprise for our own self-actualization, and not for the tourist market.
Jamaica’s global influence culturally is not a function of a state-engineered tourism marketing apparatus. It has everything to do with the fact that Jamaicans value the local; that the Jamaican aesthetic has true value inside Jamaica and that even in the face of some polarization around culture, there is a commonly high regard for the vernacular culture that is authentically Jamaican. This high degree of appreciation accounts for why Jamaicans and the world can be galvanized in celebration of Jamaica culture.
One of the fundamental principles of marketing is that you can’t market what doesn’t exist. How do we boast of our culture when we are not prepared to invest in the development of our cultural entrepreneurs and artists?
A recent statement by Tracey Ann Perpall, otherwise known as TAP, fittingly expresses the sentiment of many creative producers in the Bahamas: “Until the powers that be, television stations or whoever, start to realize that you have to invest $ in the Bahamian film/TV industry and artists, they are going to be stuck with their same old dusty programming. How you gonna ask me to produce an entire series for your channel/station and not pay or produce capital for me to do so. It takes $ to make $, dingbats.”
“Would people call a plumber and ask them to repair all the pipes in their house and then say, ‘Oh we won’t pay you....your pay is experience’? I think not. At the end of the day acting/film is a job/career like anything else and requires money and revenue to make it work/function.” Top of Form
TAP is a young creative entrepreneur who has invested in her own development and created opportunity in spite of the challenges. Her views could apply to virtually any area of cultural enterprise in the Bahamas.
How do we market our pride in our heritage when our way of living reflects that we do not have pride in ourselves? So many of our traditions have become relics of the past, causalities of modernity and urbanisation: boat building, plaiting, even rake n’ scrape. Those who know better are fighting tooth and nail to restore and preserve are heritage and ensure that Bahamians are grounded, but they are working against the grain.
Take a day and sit at the feet of the legendary Netica Symonette, cultural pioneer and tourism matriarch. Ask her if Bahamians have pride in their culture and heritage? She can tell you much better than I. Until we reconcile who we are and what we value with how we want to be seen, we will always lack a certain authenticity.