Culture is that intangible thing, made tangible in customs and clothing and ways-of-living, that shapes people and their viewpoints. It is often a great source of pride, and as such is fiercely protected by its people. But culture, nowadays, isn’t just a source of pride; it’s a commercial venture that is exported to other countries, with the aim of increasing global cultural significance and boosting one’s economy. And how does a country achieve that with just its culture?
Perhaps, the easiest way to explain this phenomenon is with the help of an example.
One of the biggest, and most prominent, commercialized cultures recently is Korean culture. Korean culture, and Korean cultural derivatives such as K-pop and K-Dramas, have burst onto the global stage as one of the most sought-after products in the last few years. Arguably, it all started with the explosion of a certain K-Pop group.
The Commercialisation of Korea
Korean culture was widely beloved even before BTS, especially around South-East Asia. However, it was the stunning success of BTS, and their management company’s marketing efforts, that truly brought K-Pop and subsequently Korean culture into the mainstream consciousness of Western audiences. From the attention that BTS received, other K-Pop groups and K-Dramas started receiving attention from the global stage as well. Such attention even eventually resulted in a fusion of Korean and global influences, with BTS and many other Korean artists collaborating with Western artists, and Korean films garnering praise and recognition in Western award ceremonies such as The Oscars with Parasite’s historic win for Best Picture.
Such successful global exportation of culture boosts a country’s economy not only through product and merchandise purchases, but also by creating a ‘desirable’ image of the country in the eyes of the consumers. Said desirable image creates a fervent tourism market where people who love K-Pop or K-Dramas wish to travel to Korea to experience the culture. The popularity of K-Pop and K-Dramas have also spawned related desires in the form of Korean food and K-fashion. Even K-beauty
, which refers to skincare products or beauty regimens originating from Korea, has risen in popularity all over the world after people viewed Koreans “glass” skin on TV. Not only does this create demand for Korea tourism, but also overseas demand for Korean products helping Korean companies to expand their markets and establish loyal customers in Western shores.
And, like any sensible government, the Korean government takes full advantage of the benefits the popularity of Korean culture on the global stage affords them. They create and put out numerous paid digital marketing
campaigns starring popular K-Pop idols or actors to spur their fans
into visiting Korea, hoping the positive feelings associated with the representative will flow onto Korea itself. They appoint visible celebrities as ambassadors of South Korea, and have them engage in activities that gain vast amounts of press coverage. But most importantly, a lot of these “commercials” for Korea are implicitly done; they feature a celebrity eating delicious-looking food sumptuously and implying it’s high-quality taste, without ever directly promoting the food and saying, “come to Korea.” The celebrity may be talking about their latest movie release, or their newest album, but they eat the food so heartily that it feels impossible to not want to eat such food yourself. And where else to eat authentic Korean food than in Korea?
Of course, it’s not just Korea that commercializes its culture. In fact, most countries do. Commercializing culture is not just a valuable revenue tool, it’s also somewhat inevitable in a global world. American culture for one is heavily commercialized with American clothing and food and ideals of “freedom” permeating the global stage. Japanese culture is commercialized through games, anime, manga, and food. Thai culture through Thai food, and French culture through French food and fashion, to name a few.
When any aspect of a culture garners attention and becomes popular globally, it stands to reason that it will become commercialized thanks to the market creating demand and the system of capitalism that the world runs on. But commercialisation of culture can also lead to some undesirable effects; at least in the perspective of the owners of the culture. For example, the Italian food that most of the world adores is a bastardized version of real Italian food. Real Italian food does not contain as many toppings or combinations of flavors as the type you find at Pizza Hut. And many Italians are not very happy with tourists who come into their country expecting Pizza Hut-like food and leaving disappointed that there is no such thing as a Hawaaiian pizza in Italy. Then of course, there is the danger with cultural appropriation that occurs when cultures are commercialized and easily accessible to anybody, such as practices of blackfishing. Commercialisation of culture can have both good and bad effects, but in my opinion, on the whole, it leads to a much closer, more appreciative world. And there’s some good in that.