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Dubya’s campaign to bring tourists to America


During this past Christmas season, it became something of a joke in the United States when Americans were asked by their government to go shopping as a means of pursuing the War on Terrorism at home. The idea was that the Forces of Evil wanted nothing less than the destruction of Our Way of Life, so the best way to foil them was for everyone to carry on as they always had. Better yet, spend a little more and get this darned ailing economy back on its feet. That’ll teach ’em.

The same kind of thinking is implicit in the current advertising campaign, launched by the Travel Industry Association of America to coincide with President George W. Bush’s visit last week, to promote travel to and within the United States. Now, it’s Japanese people who are being asked to do their part in the War on Terrorism, by essentially getting over their fear of flying after Sept. 11 and going to the U.S. and spending all that money they’re so famous for spending when they’re abroad.

This idea is a corollary of another joke, the one about Japan being the country that sits home during times of international crises writing checks. The difference is that here is a way for the average Japanese person to make a difference on an individual level. The loss of tourist revenue from Japan has apparently caused a great deal of pain in places like Hawaii and New York. Hawaii seems quite desperate, in fact, and is trying everything, from recruiting Akebono for high-level Japan trade missions to staging a concert by the Japanese boy band Arashi in Oahu in the hope that fans will get on a plane and fly five hours to see them perform.

The president himself was involved in the TIAA promotion campaign, which is not so much a sign of desperation as it is an acknowledgment of what the job’s priorities have become. After all, when Bush’s father last visited Japan as president his most important task was to attend the opening of a Toys ‘R’ Us outlet.

According to a Japanese press release distributed by the TIAA, George Jr. “appears” in the travel spots, but the ones I’ve seen so far only include the president in voice-over with Japanese subtitles. In fact, while the press release implies that the spot has been made “for the Japanese people,” it looks all-purpose, designed to be adaptable to any regional market in the world.

It’s understandable if the president was too busy to give more time to the project, but the overall production lacks imagination and punch. It’s got that antiseptic quality so common to American ads that sell services: the smiling, purposely “average” employees (who do a better job of selling America’s dentists than America’s destinations), the beautifully lit shots of glittering hotel lobbies and shining 747s, the sluggish rhythm.

Though the president obviously made himself available for the campaign (he is the commander in chief, and there is a war on), I don’t see why the TIAA couldn’t get some celebrities instead, as New York City did to promote its own tourist industry. Though it wasn’t aimed at the Japanese, the campaign was covered extensively by local press, who picked it up over the Internet. It featured people like Robert De Niro and Woody Allen doing things they weren’t famous for and, in fact, weren’t particularly good at (ice skating, dancing). It certainly would have made more of an impression.

Or they could have asked Bush to speak in Japanese, the way the Australian ambassador does in current TV ads for Jusco supermarkets that promote Tasmanian beef. Though the commercials are pretty amateurish, they’ve been attracting a lot of attention merely for the ambassador’s stilted pronunciation, which many Japanese find hilarious and winning. President Bush may feel he doesn’t need to give anyone any more reason to laugh at him, but I can guarantee that the spot would be more memorable than the one presently being broadcast.

The best idea, however, would have been to get local celebrities to appear in the ad. Regardless of how fond Japanese people are of Americans, it’s difficult to trust their commercials. Americans tend to be matter of fact (“Buy this!”), whereas the Japanese just try to get you to like them (“Laugh at this!”). For instance, the TIAA could have hired Osaka’s premier comedy-production company and talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo, which recently launched a new service. Local governments who want to promote their regions can hire the agency to make a film or video for a flat fee of 3.5 million yen. The hitch is that shooting must be completed in one day, but the benefit is that Yoshimoto’s complete roster of talent — which includes Japan’s top comedians, as well as several famous musicians and athletes — is made available to the customer.

Such a campaign would be topical, and it would also immediately forge a feeling of identification. As it is, the TIAA ad is polite and tasteful, but its wishy-washy tone gives the impression that the people it targets are being taken for granted. Considering America’s current state-of-siege mentality, the commercials come off less like a promotion and more like a plea. That’s not enough of an incentive to go.

If Bush really wants the Japanese to visit America and spend money again, then he should try to increase the value of the yen. He wouldn’t even need a commercial.