Marketing can be a tricky business. For every advertisement which flirts with genius, imprinting a brand’s identity onto your brain via one clever trick of the camera or example of fine word-play, there is another which misses its target.
In fact, if you will indulge the metaphor, and a dive into the realms of football, a bad advert can not so much miss the target as seem to lose all concept of where it is and what it looks like – like a centre back for a team needing an equaliser, swinging his weaker foot at an injury-time corner, and watching aghast as the ball soars out of the stadium.
For some reason, travel destinations and tourist boards seem particularly prone to such departures from wisdom and common sense. Perhaps it is the belief that holidays are an easy sell – amid the knowledge that everybody wants to spend a week somewhere warm and interesting to fend off the stress of the daily grind. How hard can it be to attract a few tourists?
Or perhaps it is the comforting safety blanket of the glossy photos in the brochure or on the website, which do the job better than any pithy phrase, and lead to the assumption that words don’t matter. But some of the catchphrases unleashed on the public are enough to make you wonder whether any fully-fledged grown-ups checked the project properly before they applied their signatures.
The latest country to offer itself as a hostage to widespread incredulity and social-media ridicule is Albania, which, in the last few days, has unveiled its latest slogan – “Be Taken by Albania”.
Taken, you think? Surely they aren’t referring to Taken? As in the 2008 movie where two young American girls are kidnapped in Paris and sold into the sex trade by heavily stereotyped Albanian gangsters – unleashing a chain of events and a wave of violence that leaves one of them dead? As in the box-office smash which led to two sequels, Taken 2 and Taken 3 – which also sold lots of cinema tickets, but did nothing for the image of Albania on the global stage. They can’t mean “Taken” in that sense, can they? That would seem an odd way to market your country.
But then you go to the accompanying website – which is inevitably listed as takenbyalbania.com – and you find that there’s more. Much more. For starters, there is an piece of introductory blurb which emphasises that, yes, they are talking about the movie Taken. And they are going to run with it.
“In popular culture,” the text runs, “Albania has been coloured as a haven for thugs, criminals, and gangsters. While we understand that perception might make for good movies, like Taken, it’s wholly untrue! In reality, Albania is a beautiful and incredibly safe place to visit and live.”
And yes, they are absolutely right with the last bit about beauty and safety. But it might have been better to make that the gist of the sales pitch rather than mentioning gangsters and… oh dear, there’s more.
“That’s why we’ve started this campaign to personally appeal to famed Taken actor, Mr Liam Neeson,” the blurb continues. “Watch the video and join us by signing the petition to get Mr Neeson to Albania and Be Taken by its beautiful nature, hospitality and eternal traditions.” It signs off, of course, with the Instagram and Twitter-ready hashtags #takenbyalbania and #liamneeson.
Does nobody read newspapers any more? Mr Neeson is a fine actor. He is indeed the star of all three Taken films. And he has made some excellent movies in a distinguished career which has gone far beyond the no doubt well-remunerated role of a retired CIA agent with a taste for dispensing “maverick justice”. In particular, his sensitive portrayal of Oskar Schindler in 1993’s Schindler’s List will stand as a cinematic high-watermark long into the future.
But Mr Neeson is currently in the midst of one of the most difficult moments of said stellar career after making the deeply troubling and inadvisable revelation that he once went out looking for a random black man to kill in premeditated “revenge” for the rape of a close female friend. If you are seeking a screen icon to be a figurehead for your new publicity drive, and you are actively hoping to distance yourself from echoes of thuggery, then Liam is not, at this exact juncture, your guy.
This mis-step is a shame, as Albania has an enormous amount to offer. Indeed, another part of the site’s blurb gets to the heart of the matter when it argues that “in a Europe that has been tamed and explored, Albania is the last defender of the rugged”. It is, the spiel continues, “a place where the mountains have no roads, the rivers flow wild, and the beaches are unspoiled”.
While a hearty dose of hyperbole courses through this statement (the mountains, for example, do have roads – and in the particular case of the Llogara Pass through the Ceraunian Mountains, provide entirely glorious views as they do so), it also dispenses a basic truth: That Albania is one of Europe’s final “hidden” corners – and that travellers would be well advised to get to know it.
I write from experience. I spent more than a week in the country two years ago, amid the sunlight of June, and found a country which does not make you work hard to decipher its appeal, but equally, does not revel in the obvious. The capital Tirana is still shrugging off the five decades of Communist rule that it endured in the 20th century – but is doing so with some style in the bars and restaurants of its Blloku district. And while there are certainly areas of concrete hotels (not least in second city Durres), there are sumptuous stretches of shoreline, not least around the city of Vlore, where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet along the Karaburun Peninsula – and further south towards Saranda. The hillsides and pastures inland are dotted with remnants of ancient Illyria – especially the archaeological sites of Apollonia and Byllis. And Berat is a town retrieved from a postcard, its Ottoman-epoch architecture shining for the camera above the River Osum.
Is all this landscape and heritage poorly served by the new promotional campaign? Probably. Is there, as the old adage runs, no such thing as bad publicity? Recent events and several dramatic falls from grace have shown us that bad publicity very much exists. Will a crassly judged publicity drive which draws on the gleam of a Hollywood star – whatever the shadows across him at present – attract more people than a photos of the lovely Bouleuterion at Apollonia? Sadly, yes – but that doesn’t mean it sits well.
Still, Albania is not the first destination to raise eyebrows with a curious approach to raising its profile. Australia caused some would-be visitors to cough out their coffee with the mildly sweary tagline of “So where the bloody hell are you?” in 2006. Slovenia sparked confusion as much as tourist interest with its 2016 slogan “I Feel Slovenia” – which only really worked (and even then, not much) if you were looking at the logo, which had the second, third, fourth and fifth letters of the key word highlighted in white to create a side-message of “I Feel Love”. Paraguay’s big pitch of “Paraguay: You have to feel it”, launched in 2010, begged the reply “Yes, but what, exactly?”.
Then there is Nebraska, the little-visited state at the heart of the USA which took the unusual step of mocking its reputation for dullness in a cry for attention unleashed last October. “Famous for our flat, boring landscape” read one line, placed against the backdrop of a rocky vista that most certainly couldn’t be described as either. “Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” ran another – to the chagrin of a few of the locals, who mistook the self-deprecation – and the underlying hint that Nebraska is for open-minded visitors who can grasp its charms – for a gun aimed at its own foot.
Albania’s campaign is not as clever as Nebraska’s – playing for easy guffaws on the back row of the theatre rather than trusting its audience to appreciate a wry comment and a knowing wink. Whether it will be successful in drawing people to the country remains to be seen. Albania deserves a wealth of visitors – even if its marketing team needs to retreat to the drawing board.