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‘Crisis’ is a Greek word but so too is ‘Icon’. Picture, representation, sign or symbol: each conveys the same thing. An icon fixes a visual into the individual membrane and acts as a reference to define a community. During its financial nadir when bailouts, austerity measures, strikes and pension cuts became the everyday reality, advertisers began to rethink ‘Greece’. The Greek crisis became so endemic to the entire country, tourism took a huge hit. No one wanted to visit a country in financial ruin. Croatia seemed a better alternative. A glass of retsina at a portside tavern with octopus drying overhead may remain an iconic sight every summer throughout Greece, but it occurs to dwindling crowds. Even the tavern’s Albanian waiters want to leave Greece given they are unwaged and rely on commission. Iconic images of sun and sea of Greece only go so far.
Peter Economides was responsible for the management of Coca Cola’s $2 billion account worldwide, and in 2011 wanted to re-calibrate Greece’s image abroad.
Frustrated at the negative images of a broken economy, institutional corruption and rioting on the streets, Economides believed Greece could overcome its crisis by ‘image management’. What was required was a ‘common brand narrative’ where Greeks united under positive values. The country needed to own its vast history and put its best face forward. Ancient sites, Byzantine frescoes, kefi every night in Plaka: there was rich material to use.
The question is what should Greece focus on to restore its battered reputation? The fabled Greek Isles? Rich produce abundant in fertile fields? Greek hospitality? Those iconic qualities of Greek life have been severely dented since 2009 when George Papandreou told the world the coffers were empty and bankruptcy was a euro away. A little history will tell you the islands were not only for holiday-makers but were desolate places incarcerating political exiles in the 20th century. Food stuffs? Olive oil, a mainstay of the Peloponnese, has suffered bad crops and failing prices. Strawberries are now deemed ‘blood strawberries’ ever since exploited immigrants in Manolada were shot at by their boss for daring to ask for their wage.
And what of that vaunted hospitality? Greeks are locking their doors in the countryside, something unheard of prior to the GFC which set off alarms bells in the banking sector and ensnared Greece.
All this comes at a time when the Troika (EU, ECB and IMF) are demanding the Greek government reduce, slash and contract jobs, pensions, health and education budgets, but also to stall young dreams and horizons. Youth unemployment is reaching a staggering 70% and suicides are rampant.
Indeed, when German bankers arrived in Athens in June to check the decline of tax revenue due to public service lay-offs and a 23% VAT, it seemed the patient was dying and they wanted to get its cut of the death rites. Given this terrible context what images can advertisers conjure up to turn around Greece’s tawdry reputation? How will newer Greek icons emerge? For one, celebrities were vouching for a Greek renaissance. On TV German academics claimed Greece was a guiding light to the future whilst Hollywood stars proclaimed their love of the ancient past. Importantly, feel-good ads were directed at a traumatized youth. Telco’s were declaring ‘together we can overcome’ showing a bunch of healthy kids piled onto a bike. If that didn’t work at least Coca Cola was being realistic. Its campaign was to ‘believe in a better tomorrow’.
I’m afraid rebranding Greece during the crisis is going to need more than ‘image management’, (a term one step to propaganda at its most Orwellian). Every nation seeks to present its better face to the world, its called tourism after all. But any nation worth its salt will escape branding, just as any individual will evade categories. Greece can’t be confined to a single image anymore. Eliminate or create one image and another five will emerge, because Greece is a multi-headed Hydra. ‘Everything is a brand’ suggests Economides, but to brand a nation is to place it in a straitjacket. Coke is a global brand because it doesn’t change, doesn’t offend its consumers and does not ask them to be free agents. Isn’t that the opposite of Greece, the birthplace of democracy, debate, and freedom?
In an effort to present its best face to the world, two words should not be forgotten in Greece of 2013: ‘Golden Dawn’. These neo Nazis are immersing themselves into mainstream politics, whilst their overt racism and violence is given covert police approval. Plans to build a mosque in Athens proved the latest provocation to the far right.
This is a disturbing sub narrative at the heart of Greece today and no white-washing by advertising gurus will put this ill back inside Pandora’s Box. Deal with necessity first is an ancient proverb, because the rest is decoration. Create a state free of corruption, get a reliable tax audit in process, provide justice for all, re-invest in Greek social capital, and make a case to prioritize humans rather than spreadsheets. These boring minutiae are not the stuff of whizz bang campaigns but they are needed to clean the stables of previous skata. Hercules can be upgraded to play a role in 21st century Greece, provided he isn’t swayed by people in the know telling him all he requires is to smile at the camera whilst fighting monsters.
Images shift and change according to the circumstances but also according to the viewer, the other half of an icon’s power. The sum of eyes that visit, read, think and dream of Greece means a collective perception at street level will always be more authentic than the one created at Madison Avenue. Greece is a work-in-progress, much like the Parthenon today held together by metal scaffolds. Old Greece, frail and in need of support is aided by the new. That is an image advertisers shy away from. Thankfully it’s free of copyright and can be seen in the lens of tourists around me.
Jorge Sotirios is in Athens researching his book on the impact of the Greek crisis: Graffiti Over Marble, to be published in 2014. He is the author of Lonesome George, C’est Moi! A South American Odyssey (Big Sky Publishing). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org