Arts and Culture

We shouldn't underestimate the power of cultural products. They can change the world

Cultural influence ... people and dogs wearing costumes inspired by Korean series Squid Game

People and dogs wearing costumes inspired by Korean series Squid Game. Image: Reuters/Heo Ran

Gabriela Pascholati do Amaral
Global Shaper, São Paulo Hub, World Economic Forum
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  • Culture products exert great influence on international relations.
  • They are also capable of effecting social change in many different areas.
  • Reflecting this importance, creatives should be more integrally included in international forums.

Cultural products, such as films and TV series, are a staple leisure-time option around the world – and have been especially present in our lives during the pandemic. So why is it that – given the great influence they have on our daily lives, the headlines and worldwide trends – they still are often written off as simple entertainment?

A few years back, Nico Daswani asked a similar question on Agenda, and now I want to present a further case for why creatives wield a lot of power for change and should be better included in international forums such as the World Economic Forum, alongside the CEOs of the largest companies in the world, or as a permanent staple of the G20 meetings, for example. For this purpose, I want to talk about these products under two lenses: as tools for international relations and as tools for social change.

In terms of international relations, these products can boost tourism, language learning, local products and a country’s image abroad. Regarding tourism, Braveheart may have increased visits to Scotland by 300% in the year after it was released, and The Motorcycle Diaries and Game of Thrones had a similar impact on South American and the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, respectively. Where language learning is concerned, Squid Game led to an increase of interest in Korean, and Outlander in Scottish Gaelic, a language that until recently was fluently spoken by only 0.6% of the Scottish population.

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The teen comedy To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before caused an unexpected rise in interest for the Japanese brand Yakult, and the movie Sideways increased pinot noir sales. Studies show how consuming media from a particular country increases interest for products from those places, which is the case of Top Gun and American-designed Ray-Ban glasses, or Stranger Things and Eggos during season one. Lastly, cultural products can greatly improve the image of a country abroad: Research shows that the image Portugal had of Brazil improved after Brazilian soap operas aired there, for example, or how Russia’s passion for Brazilian soap operas meant some Brazilian-Portuguese words were incorporated into the language. But discussing cinema and television as tools for international relations, it is important to separate the examples above from biased propaganda movies, such as generic promotion of the US or Chinese militaries in the countries’ respective blockbusters.

As tools for social change, these products can create worldwide debate, be calls to action for something greater, advance representation on screen for overlooked minorities, and also stimulate individual reflection and change.

Sparking debate is one of the things that cultural products do best: An Inconvenient Truth raised awareness on climate change, even if not much was done about it in the following years; The Day After Tomorrow was also a catalyst for discussion and awareness about the possible effects of global warming. Super Size Me caused profit losses for fast-food chains and sparked intense debate on the issue of healthy eating. More recently, Don’t Look Up also approached the topics of governance and climate change, with scientists discussing fact and fiction, and people around the globe finding parallels between the movie and their own governments.

Cultural products can also bring more direct calls to action, as was the case of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which denounced the treatment of orcas in water parks in the United States. It led to widespread backlash against SeaWorld, resulting in profit losses and fines. Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary A Thin Blue Line led to a new jury in a Texas murder case and to the freedom of an innocent man. Finally, the documentary Virunga helped fuel an advocacy campaign against oil companies looking to exploit a Ugandan national park.

Films and TV series can also, through increased representation for women and minorities, improve the mental health of children and teenagers – at the same time as misrepresentation creates harmful stereotypes that will have repercussions in daily life, including perpetuating a lack of diversity among creatives. Finally, films can also be a catalyst for personal change, for example, with one in nine women globally, and one in four in Brazil, having the courage to leave an abusive relationship due to positive female role models in film and TV.

Given this clear potential for impact in so many different areas, it is necessary to ensure more creatives have a voice outside of their industry bubble. These are people who wield influence on a worldwide scale in ways that many other endeavours are not able to replicate. From helping preserve a dying language, to ensuring better treatment of animals, to helping women leave abusive situations, there is real power in visual storytelling.

At the same time, the world is experiencing cuts in funding for the arts in several countries, such as the UK, Finland and Brazil, which is counterproductive to the tangible good they bring to society. To be able to have more impact and instigate social change, the arts need to be treated seriously – with proper funding and incentives across the board, from training new talent, to organizations supporting new projects (such as the World Cinema Fund), to ones ensuring proper pay for artists (such as this project from Ireland).

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Also worrying is the lack of creatives in international forums, where they are often there in-between panels merely to entertain. Involving creatives more integrally in these forums is needed due to their ability to make an impactful contribution, not only in terms of ideas on how best to reach an audience (such as pop-up cinemas in remote parts of the world) and raise awareness (such as movie tie-ins in the shape of advocacy campaigns), but also in thematic knowledge: Film-makers who have spent years on the ground researching and filming particular subjects may have as much practical knowledge as policy-makers. Combining the expertise of people from different backgrounds can make for inventive solutions for world issues. It is time for international forums to realize the potential of creatives and include their diverse experiences in their mix.

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