‘Soft power’ has been around for years and first surfaced in Hollywood to promote the American Dream. Now K-pop culture is taking it to a new level
Before the mass appeal of television and the advent of the internet’s global web of infotainment, there was Hollywood. Snapshots of life in the United States were dramatised and glamorised during the golden age of film in the 1930s, and screened to packed audiences around the world.
Movie moguls such as Louis B Mayer, Jack Warner and Darryl F Zenuck became the cheerleaders of the American dream. Soft power was born, although the phrase had yet to be coined.
Even at the height of the Great Depression, the country’s classic companies such as General Motors, General Electric and Coca-Cola rolled out iconic brands as co-stars in major Tinsel Town productions.
Cadillacs screamed across the screen, washing machines whirred in the background and there was always a bottle of America’s favourite soft drink in the “ice box”. National products were just a touching distance away from the big stars of the day – the Cagneys, the Gables and the Hepburns.
“Hollywood [has always been] an instrument of American soft power; a phenomenon which, though poorly understood, has a dramatic impact in shaping perceptions of America and American society,” the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus pointed out in the series Age of Empire.
He could have also added American brands. More than 80 years later, soft power is big business. In today’s entertainment obsessed era, smartphones and smart fashion have their roles to play in major box-office hits. Apple and Armani appear to mingle seamlessly into the fabric of the latest must-see movie.
But this technique pioneered by the suits in Hollywood before the Second World War has had an Asian makeover. And no country in the region has done it better than South Korea.
Since the late 1990s, a new wave of Korean culture, called hallyu, has transformed the nation’s standing to such an extent that the foreign ministry talks of “hallyu diplomacy”.
Television dramas such as Winter Sonata and K-pop hits like Gangnam Style have done more for the country’s soft power appeal than any number of targeted marketing campaigns.
“Hallyu has erased South Korea’s regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchi, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life,” the New Yorker stated.
Last year, Korea’s cultural and creative industries racked up $5.1 billion in exports and were worth a staggering $85.5bn in marketing the country. One popular television drama, My Love From The Star, even sparked a craze for beer and fried chicken in China after it was highlighted in the show by the leading female character played by Jun Ji-hyun.
This ripple effect has also been felt in other regional countries such as Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and Myanmar as well as the Middle East. South Korean fashion is considered chic, as is the array of mobile products from Samsung. Even Hyundai is riding the Korean Wave.
“Young people in Myanmar who watch Korean dramas visit our showroom and look for cars that were shown in them,” Oh Sei-young, chief executive of Kolao Holdings, told Reuters. “Hyundai is really keen on the Myanmar market.” Driving that boom has been My Love From The Star. An escapism love story, the soap has helped produce an export boom.
Set against the glitzy background of affluent Seoul, the leading characters talked and sent texts on Samsung’s Galaxy Note smartphones, and chatted via the Line mobile app made by Naver, a major Seoul portal.
Jun’s character in the series used lotions and lipsticks made by Amorepacific, South Korea’s biggest cosmetics company.
After that, sales in the skincare products and cosmetics surged with booming sales in China. “In the past, PPL [product placement] on South Korean TV shows boosted domestic sales only,” Amorepacific told AFP after reporting that sales jumped 28 per cent in 2013, boosted by a 29 per cent expansion in China.
“But we’ve recently seen it having an immediate and widespread impact in Asia, especially in China.”
With so much at stake, Korean companies now spend millions of dollars ensuring their products are strategically placed. Couples confess their undying love on Samsung smartphones or kiss for the first time in Hyundai cars. They even watch LG widescreen televisions.
“Many companies now know if their products are featured in our shows Asian viewers, especially women, will feel more familiar with their brands - whether on a conscious or unconscious level,” Kim Yeongseop, an executive producer at SBS, which broadcast My Love From The Star, told AFP.
While figures are sketchy, companies pay around $10 million to get their brands on to the top Korean dramas. Samsung is the biggest spender.
“It’s a full package, meaning all visible consumer electronics [such as] smartphones, computers, cameras, air-conditioners, TVs and refrigerators are Samsung products, from beginning to end,” Kim Si-hyun, head of 153 Production, a major product placement agency in Seoul, told AFP.
But there is more to South Korea’s global aspirations than just selling brand names. “The traditions of Korean art, crafts and cuisine have already spread around the world,” said Joseph Nye, the distinguished Harvard professor who coined the phrase “soft power” in the 1990s.
“Korean popular culture has also crossed borders. In short, South Korea has the resources to produce soft power, and its soft power is not prisoner to the geographical limitations that have constrained its hard power throughout its history.”
Sounds like a cue from an exotic Hollywood movie.