How Korea is conquering world pop culture--what can we learn?

To what extent can commercially successful creative contents be managed? Whenever this question is raised, one cannot help but recall the iconic observation by the renowned novelist, playwright and screen writer William Goldman, here (think of the book and movie Marathon Man, but not before your next visit to the dentist, here), who famously observed that
“[n]obody knows anything ... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.” 
 Whether this is just so for creative contents other than movies is subject to debate. One need only consider the packaged creation and marketing of the Spice Girls in the 1990’s, here. Perhaps more challenging is the question of the extent to which national policy can actually lead to commercial success of creative contents across national boundaries. This issue is addressed in a recently published book, The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture by Euny Hong, here. A review of this book in the 9 August issue of The Economist, here, suggests that a national cultural policy can pay big dividends. South Korea’s dazzling success in creating and exporting creative content is summarized by the reviewer at the outset:
From ‘Gangnam Style’ and competitive electronic sports to kimchi-flavored pot noodles, South Korea’s cultural exports are eagerly consumed around the world. Filipinos are hooked on its dramas. The French love its pop music and its films. Last year South Korea raked in $5 billion from its pop-culture exports. It has set its sights on doubling that by 2017….[Noting later] “‘Winter Sonata’, another drama, was a hit in Iraq and Uzbekistan.”
All of this comes from a country which, in the 1980s, censored its musicians and banned busking as an unacceptable expression of protest. The obvious question is how can we account for this? The argument made is that, to a substantial extent, the explanation can be found in direct government support for nurturing creative contents that can then be successfully exported abroad. More particularly, in reaction to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the Korean government decided to champion the development of content industries, such as film, pop music and computer games (apparently in part due to government’s dissatisfaction with the performance of the large industrial conglomerates in the run-up to the crisis). Such government support included tax incentives and direct funding for enterprises engaged in video games as well as creating a one billion dollar investment fund for supporting the local pop music industry. In the main, Korean creative content exports can be characterized as conservative in nature (as compared, for example with similar types of Japanese contents), but it seems that this has proved to be a competitive advantage in marketing these contents in various foreign countries. Indeed, it appears that the Japanese government has created a $500 million fund to encourage the development of “Cool Japan” to better compete with Korean exports in the creative content industries.

The extent to which this conservative approach flows from conscious decisions made at the governmental level, or from Korean cultural mores more deeply, is an interesting question, but the end result seems to be the creation of content that is commercially palatable to a diverse set of foreign markets. For Western cultural sensibilities resting on the worship of the Avant-garde, which itself rests on challenging authority and the status quo, the linkage between national policy and commercially successful creative content is a challenging one.

As the reviewer correctly points out, it can hardly be claimed that PSY, the rapper behind the “Gangnam Style”, here and its edgy criticism of current Korean society, is part of any explicit governmental policy. Still, writ large, the message that is given by the reviewer is that that government policy can be a substantial instrument in facilitating commercially successful creative contents. This Kat wonders whether the Korean approach to facilitating the production of creative contents can also have greater policy traction in the West. For sure, state governments in the U.S. compete with each other to offer tax and other incentives to film producers to make their next movie in their state. National governments around the globe are providing financial incentives for films and other types of creative contents. Pushing back, however, are arguments that ultimately there is little, or no, net financial benefit to the state or country involved. As well, for some countries, there is a visceral hesitation to having the government involved too deeply in promoting (managing?) the production of creative contents. And yet— if the ultimate concern is the extent to which creative contents can generate increased export revenues, it may be worthwhile considering whether the Korean model, tweaked to local circumstances, should be more closely examined.
How Korea is conquering world pop culture--what can we learn? How Korea is conquering world pop culture--what can we learn? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, August 22, 2014 Rating: 5

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