Have you heard the one about the two cows? Translating a national image to a global public

Over the years I’ve received various versions of a joke that is basically about foreign perceptions of political and national identities. Every version of this running gag revolves around the theoretical ownership of two cows and gives pithy, if stereotypical, descriptions of what corporations in a wide range of cultures and of differing political persuasions would do with such an asset. Although this endlessly evolving joke has poked fun at the French, German, Chinese, Italian, and American ways of doing things, I am always a bit surprised that a stereotypical Spanish outlook on life and business has never surfaced in the versions I’ve received. It was precisely the absence of a Spanish stereotype in this joke that inspired me to use it as the basis of a writing exercise when I taught English to Spaniards years ago. When a new version recently cropped up in Google+, I scanned the countries mentioned, but Spain still hadn’t made the list. Although new countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and India had been added to the circulating compendium of cultural identities, it appears that the world in general still doesn’t have a clue what a Spanish corporation would do with two cows. Is this important? Well, yes, from a national public relations perspective, it is important. Projecting a positive, coherent, national image abroad lays the groundwork for achieving a wide range of any nation’s foreign policy objectives, from boosting exports to negotiating international treaties.

No country can afford to be lax about its international image in the digital age. The communication potential of the Internet is enormous, and the image that a nation projects beyond its borders is increasingly important in a globalized world. One of the best recent examples of a public relations initiative designed to improve a country’s image abroad is Germany’s “Welcome to Germany, Land of Ideas” campaign. When the city of Frankfurt was chosen to host the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the German government made a conscious decision to use the event to launch a broader national public relations effort designed to do more than promote German sport and tourism; the plan was to utilize the world’s momentary focus on Germany to communicate a radically new image of German society abroad. The time had come to change international perceptions that Germans were inhospitable, ill-humored, brusque, bureaucratic, and arrogant.

The project engineers (the federal government, the German tourist board, and the local organizing committee) deftly exploited the interactivity of Internet to mobilize all sectors of German society and spur citizen involvement in the process of determining how the country should go about promoting itself. The local organizing committee worked hand in hand with the Ministry of the Interior. From the very start, the campaign was structured as an open process that offered incentives for participating. German embassies all over the world were provided with a marketing kit designed not only to promote tourism in Germany during the World Cup but also to create a more dynamic image of German society abroad. Two years before the event, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs was given the responsibility for launching a website in nine languages devoted to football in Germany. A program of cultural events  was funded through (I thought I’d faint when I read this) the Nationale DFB Kulturstiftung GmbH—the German football federation’s cultural foundation.

The campaign took risks and faced the darkest hours of Germany’s past head on. According to a post-campaign report written by Saskia and Gernot Brauer, “To counter the old stereotypes of how Germany is seen internationally, the German academic exchange program DAAD had organised an essay competition for students in the UK entitled ‘But don’t mention the war’ the year before the World Cup. This quotation refers to a famous episode of the legendary British comedy series Fawlty Towers, in which the irritable British hotel owner Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, offends his German hotel guests by constantly mentioning the war. Every child in Britain is familiar with this line. Cleese, a master of the German military goose-step, was a patron of the competition. He said ‘I’m delighted to help with trying to break down the ridiculous anti-German prejudices of the tabloids, and clowns like Basil Fawlty, who are pathetically stuck in a world view that’s more than half a century out of date.’”

The foreign press was informed, engaged, and surveyed well in advance of the sporting event. When the World Cup finally took place, they came, they saw, and were conquered. As hoped, international coverage of the sporting event was spiced with positive observations about the Germans themselves. “Our stereotype of the Germans,” wrote Jim White in the London Telegraph, “was that of a person sticking rigidly to rules, or a humourless bureaucrat.” The same newspaper went on to report, “What tens of thousands of visitors pouring in from across the globe discovered is how obsolete that image is. Instead they were confronted by a nation insisting that nothing got in the way of a good time.” The painstakingly laid social groundwork for the campaign paid off brilliantly when it became clear that the German team would not win the competition. Both official and non-official hosts kept their eyes on the real prize at stake and made a collective effort not to give the impression of being bad losers. Post-event surveys showed that the collective effort had been worth it: “91 percent of foreign visitors felt welcome in Germany and 93 percent considered the World Cup to be an outstanding event.”

Much of the marketing costs originally identified with the World Cup promotion have been amortized through the reuse of logos, translated content, and other material in subsequent activities carried out as part of the broader national image campaign. The distinctive logo bearing images of dahlias in the colors of the German flag first used in the World Cup campaign has subsequently been used in spin-off campaigns such as “Germany Years Abroad” designed to communicate a positive image of Germany to Chinese and Indian audiences. The overall campaign strategy also included the production and promotion of The Best of Germany – 250 Reasons to Love Our Country Today, a gorgeous book edited by publisher Florian Langenscheidt. Obviously designed not only to warm up the foreign press corp before the sporting event but also to merit a long-term place on a journalist’s bookshelf, the book was good enough to meet both challenges.

Is any publicity good publicity? Absolutely not. That’s why I was so impressed by Florian Langenscheidt’s book. His compendium of all things German establishes Germany as much more than the land of dachshunds and beer (although it gives these their due). Did you know that MP3 technology was the brainchild of German researcher Karlheinz Brandenburg? Did you realize that the designer menswear label Hugo Boss was German? Langenscheidt’s book plays with well-established national stereotypes but also builds a broader positive image of Germany as a multi-faceted modern state.

The PR genius of The Best of Germany – 250 Reasons to Love Our Country Today lies in the broad scope and inclusiveness of the material it presents. It successfully informs a worldwide audience that although the stereotype of German cuisine may be bratwurst, the doner kebab is now the country’s most popular fast food, and although Allianz and Audi are quintessential German brand names, the country’s democratic constitution and social safety net are also national “trademark” assets. The book also notes that one of the country’s rising film stars is Daniel César Martin Brühl Gonzales Domingo, born in Barcelona in 1978, an excellent choice for illustrating the openness of German society today. In short, it’s a book that maintains its place on one’s bookshelf over time because it offers well-written, well-translated and interesting information in an eye-catching and well-designed format. Four years after it’s publication, I still enjoy browsing through its 515 colorful and informative pages.

So how does Germany fare in the post-World Cup cow joke category? Not too bad compared to its neighbors France and Italy. In fact, it conveys that carefully crafted image of a country known for its sense of humor and its love of the good life that the country’s PR strategists hoped to transmit when they first contemplated a major national image campaign as early as 2001.

GERMAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. You re-engineer them so they are all blond, drink lots of beer, give excellent quality milk, and run a hundred miles an hour. Unfortunately, they also demand 13 weeks of vacation per year.

FRENCH CORPORATION: You have two cows. You go on strike because you want three cows. You go to lunch. Life is good.

ITALIAN CORPORATION: You have two cows but you don’t know where they are. While ambling around, you see a beautiful woman. You break for lunch. Life is good.

The cow joke can, in fact, reflect both a country’s image abroad and how perceptions change slightly over time. For example, the American stereotype in the version I received in 2005 was:

AMERICAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. You sell one, lease it back to yourself and do an IPO on the 2nd one. You force the two cows to produce the milk of four cows. You are surprised when one cow drops dead. You spin an announcement to the analysts stating you have downsized and are reducing expenses. Your stock goes up.

By 2011, the idea of floating a cow on the stock market and putting a positive spin on disastrous events no longer appears to be as amusing as it once was and although many companies are downsizing, few stocks are going up:

AMERICAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow has dropped dead.

Before wrapping up this post, I made one more attempt to find a Spanish two-cow joke. Googling “Spaniard two cows,” I found the following three versions, two of which were obviously concocted by Spaniards and therefore don’t qualify as indicators of the image of Spain abroad. The third should be considered fairly inevitable given the way Spain has been immortalized by everyone from Ernest Hemingway to the Spanish Tourist Board. Collectively, they point to the need to polish the national image both domestically and abroad. I have taken the liberty of patching up the syntax of the first and have left the other two as I found them in the Internet:

SPANISH CORPORATION: You have two cows. It took you two weeks to realize that you had two cows. They have since wandered off and demanded that their territory be autonomous. You decide to take a three-hour lunch and a siesta.

SPANISH CORPORATION: You have 20,000 cows. 200 of them hard work while the remaining complain and bitch. Then another 19.800 cows are required(?) from cheaper farms. Finally all 20.000 cows get CCC rating, but we dont care cuz we are EuroCup Champions and Antonio Banderas is spanish.

SPANIARD: You have two cows. You trade them for a bull. In a macho moment the next day you are gored to death.

An analysis of an ongoing cow joke may be as unscientific a method for measuring a country’s image abroad as Mark Tansey’s painting The Innocent Eye Test is for measuring the value of a work of art or a critic’s opinion, but humor always contains a grain of truth. Spain isn’t the only country that should work harder to consolidate and improve its national image both at home and abroad, but however a country is portrayed (or not) in the never-ending saga of the two cows, all could benefit from a closer look at Germany’s timely national PR strategy and Florian Langenscheidt’s lasting portrait of Germany society today. Of course, one should never forget that translating a national image to a global public entails providing that international public with excellent translations of the message to be conveyed.