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  • Writer's pictureE. Pontee

Finally, a Catchy Ad for Korean Tourism That I Can Groove To (After Numerous Marketing Gaffs)

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

First, if you haven't seen it already, watch the embedded video called "Feel the Rhythm of Korea: Seoul" courtesy of the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) to get into some seriously unique grooves. It's impressive how far South Korea has come in terms of its "soft power" presence in global media, which Koreans call "Hallyu," which literally translates to "the Korean wave."

I could never have seen this coming as a Generation X, Korean American teen in the 1980s. I considered myself lucky if my non-Asian American peers could draw any kind of meaningful distinction between Korea and other East Asian cultures. And it wasn't until my college years in the 1990s that Asian pop culture started making strides in the US market with Japanese anime and manga and Hong Kong action films. But even those genres mostly existed in the esteem of fringe aficionados at the time.

Fast forward to now and I'm seeing K-pop boyband BTS achieve Beatles-proportions of fan mania, the Korean film Parasite become the first non-English speaking film to receive the award for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (by the by, film buffs may catch an Easter egg pertaining to a climactic scene involving staircases while watching the Seoul video ad), and Western fans on Internet forums obsessing over the historical costumes, particularly the hats, found in the Netflix series Kingdom, a Korean television show that conceptualizes a zombie plague outbreak injected into a story of palace intrigue occurring in the Joseon Dynasty, a historical era popular for many Korean drama series, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, prior to "Feel the Rhythm of Korea" video ad series, the one critical area where I felt Korea's soft power was lagging was in the Korean tourism marketing campaigns which in the last several years failed to keep up with the rest of pop culture who seemed to do all the heavy lifting in promoting Korean culture. But more on that later.

For the "Feel the Rhythm of Korea" video ad series, the KTO originally meant for them to be a straightforward tourism ads, but due to the pandemic, the video shifted its focus slightly into a virtualized friendly promise to essentially "catch up" after the world stops being in lockdown, using the hashtags #cheeruptheworld and #meetyoulater. They also created different video ads for other cities in South Korea which I'll list here: Andong, Busan, Gangneung, Jeonju, and Mokpo.

The music is actually a modern take on gugak, which literally translates to "national music" but essentially features two large genres, folk music and court music, each of which hold its own subgenres. The vocalists actually sing in a modernized adaptation of pansori, a traditional form of musical storytelling which falls under the folk music genre of gugak. The music performers are a group called Leenalchi and the song featured in the Seoul ad is called "Tiger is Coming." After the Seoul ad, I think Jeonju is my next favorite in terms of its music groove, but each video has its own quirky music flow.

The dancers featured in the video are part of a modern dance company called the Ambiguous Dance Company that formed in 2007, when the artistic director Kim Bo-ram (in Korean culture family names are listed first) was a back-up dancer for first generation K-pop artists. Many of the costumes you see in the videos are ones they had recycled from prior dance performances. The costumes

feature elements of Korean clothing throughout Korea's history but with a strong modern twist. In fact, some Korean viewers commented that the dancers look like "Joseon hipsters." For example, the tall hat of the dancer in the bright red suit is modeled after what would have been an admiral's helmet from the Joseon Dynasty, but of course modified with some outré artistic flourishes.

All of these quirky but complementary elements came together to create a highly creative and hugely successful advertising campaign, even resulting in a Tourism Innovation Award in 2020 in the category of The Best Digital Campaign.

However, before reaching this high point, the Korean government has had a few stumbles along the way, creating several gaffs when trying to create marketing campaigns geared towards foreigners. Did you know that part of the Marvel film Avengers: Age of Ultron took place in Seoul? If you didn't, I wouldn't blame you. One of the government's most expensive promotional ventures was spending nearly $2 million USD in Korean tax payer money to get Marvel Studios to film part of Avengers: Age of Ultron in Seoul back in 2014. The scene in question involved Captain America (actor Chris Evans), Black Widow (actor Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (actor Jeremy Renner) pursuing the robotic villain Ultron (actor James Spader) in a high-stakes chase through the streets of Seoul.

Unfortunately, the resulting footage that made it in the Avengers sequel was deeply disappointing to many Korean viewers, and I can understand why. Putting aside that quick-cutting action scenes are not great for showcasing a location's aesthetic virtues, the chase scene showed mostly drab-colored streets, highway overpasses, unremarkable commercial buildings, and a murky-looking Han River. When the film released back then, I even remember asking some friends and family in the US what they had thought of the depiction of Seoul in that scene, but most hadn't even realized the scene took place there at all! They only had the vague recollection that it had occurred in some East Asian city. This highlights the importance of abiding by one of marketing's cardinal advertising rules: make sure the brand that you're promoting (in this case the city of Seoul) is distinct from that of other competitors.

Later in 2017, it was the Seoul Metropolitan Government in cross-promotion with Asiana Airlines that made a blunder with a poster ad campaign bound for Times Square in New York City. The poster featured a high-fade silhouette of a young woman wearing a traditional hanbok which framed various key tourist attractions throughout Seoul. Unfortunately, the gesture of her tightening her outfit closed with a traditional ribbon called the goreum, which is located at chest level, gave the impression to some New Yorkers that she was undressing. It didn't help that the poster's logo read in part "Unforgettable Experience in Seoul." I can't speak to the whether or not the ambiguity of the gesture was intentional, but due to reactions from both Americans and Koreans criticizing the sexually suggestive nature of the image and inadvertent undertones of sex tourism, the ad campaign was withdrawn in just a few days. So in this case, I'd give points for creativity but a failing grade for cultural sensitivities.

A controversial campaign poster ad promoting tourism in Seoul displayed in New York City's Time Square had to be withdrawn due to criticism of sexual innuendo and implied sex tourism
Image: Posters intended for display in New York City's Time Square | Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government

Coming back to the KTO in 2018, a teaser for a series of video ad campaigns featuring the K-pop boyband EXO, who back then arguably held the top spot among K-pop artists before BTS surpassed them in international recognition, was panned for dubbing over the real voices of EXO members. The decision utterly baffled many EXO fans who were acutely attuned to what each band member sounded like and who knew that EXO members had enough English proficiency to speak the simply written lines. I'd also suggest that the dubbing became that much more cringeworthy with the tepid through line, "Have you ever...?" paired with a flattened audio that sounded like someone used a shoebox for a recording studio. And using composer Joseph Offenbach's "Galop Infernal," better known for its association with the can-can dance, didn't do the video any favors by picking the classical music equivalent of a hit pop song that's been overplayed to death on the radio.

But at the start of 2021, given all the Korean government's prior struggles with promoting Korean tourism, and after a very rough 2020 in general for people all across the globe, it's nice to see this significant evolution in creativity that has finally provided a truly charming incentive for viewers to visit South Korea eventually. Even their slogans have improved from complete duds like "Sparkling Korea" and "I Seoul U" to more serviceable (if a little safe) ones like "Imagine your Korea" and "Feel the Rhythm of Korea." I'm just glad the folks in the office of the Korean Tourism Organization were finally able to catch up to the rest of the Korean wave in order to find and successfully apply the talent to give us something creatively quirky, fun, and uniquely Korean.


If you liked this piece, further down the Internet rabbit hole you'll find...

  • Leenalchi's official YouTube channel where you listen to more of their music here.

  • an interesting article in NPR by Haeryun Kang that covers the band Leenalchi and considers the constrictive nature of the "K-pop" label as a genre in contrast to the diverse music coming from Korea and the problematic designation of "World Music" as a music genre in general here.

  • a video interview with Leenalchi by the Korean Cultural Centre UK with English subtitles you can see here.

  • Ambiguous Dance Group's office Facebook page here.

  • an interview with Ambiguous Dance Group's artistic director Kim Bo-ram here.

  • the full choreography of Ambiguous Dance Group from the video "Feel the Rhythm of Korea: Seoul" here.

  • another video featuring Ambiguous Dance Group looking badass showing more examples of their fusion costumes in a fashion spread concept video by the magazine Noblesse Man here.

Cover: Video still from "Feel the Rhythm of Korea: Seoul" | Source: Korean Tourism Organization

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