Marketing a nation, one advertisement at a time

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Marketing a nation, one advertisement at a time


It’s with a tinge of pride that Seo Kyoung-duk describes himself as “a Korean image marketer.” Ambitious and fresh out of graduate school at Korea University, he’s done a lot to live up to his moniker.
His most recent act was to sign a contract with the Wall Street Journal to run a quarter-page advertisement on the dispute over the English name of the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan; the ad will run in the paper around mid-November.
As a college student in Korea, Mr. Seo, now 32, set up a campus club called “Life Survival,” a group that helped to promote the World Cup games in Korea and invented a new lexicon, with words like “universitism,” meaning the idea that all Korean universities should be equal, instead of having Seoul National University at the top of all rankings.
Eccentricity appears to be Mr. Seo’s natural habitat. His portfolio, which contains pages of newspaper clippings on events that he organized as a student, runs the gamut from a soccer match to a beauty pageant.
Yes, beauty pageant: in response to public broadcasters pulling the plug on the 2001 Miss Korea pageant after feminist groups succeeded in banning it from the air, Mr. Seo organized the “Korea University Superwoman Pageant.” Judges were to vote for female university students who possessed the characteristics most associated with modern successful young women in Korea. It was a new idea, but Mr. Seo never succeeded in winning the backing of feminist groups.
When his name attracted publicity, his subjects went more controversial.
Before the World Cup, he proposed that the Korean Blue House secretary commission the American artist Jene Pool to make a shirt out of grass from the pitch at Sangam World Cup Stadium.
In August, when the dispute between Japan and Korea over the Dokdo islets became a huge issue, he published an advertisement in the New York Times proclaiming Dokdo to be Korean territory. He ran the statement in the paper’s international news section, complete with a URL ( and his e-mail address. He paid for the ad with money he earned by working for a street magazine “Neo Look.”
“Dokdo belongs to Korea,” the advertisment read. “The Japanese government must face this fact. Also, Korea and Japan should now move toward cooperation for the creation of a peaceful and prosperous Northeast Asia that resonates throughout the world.”
“The impact (of the ad) was stronger than I had expected,” he said. “BBC radio called and expressed interest in a story on Dokdo. A lot of Chinese people responded, saying they would also consider media advertising as an option for their dispute over Diao-yu Dao,” the island known as Senkaku in Japanese.
He denies being a nationalist, but his first attempt to do a project overseas, when he was a college sophomore, was to gather Korean backpackers in Paris and organize a ceremonial event for Korean Liberation Day in front of the Eiffel Tower.
In New York, where he is temporarily based, Seo is looking for companies to sponsor Korean-language audio-device tours for the city’s major museums. It’s an extension of works he has been doing for the past few years, passing out free leaflets on Korea to libraries and Korean institutes abroad.
“When I visited the New York Times office earlier this year, the marketing staff there suggested that I use a credible e-mail English account like Yahoo or Gmail,” he said. “They didn’t think my Korean e-mail was reliable. But I insisted on using my original Korean account. It was a bitter experience.”

by Park Soo-mee
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