Italy: extraordinary commonplace

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In January 2015, a new advert invaded the web: “Italy: the extraordinary commonplace”, the ad was requested by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development and by the Institute for Foreign Commerce with the aim of attracting foreign investors in the country. This ad, created by Leo Burnett was showcased twice that year: first in January at Davos for the World Economic Forum and again in May of the same year, in its extended form, when RAI (Italian Public Television Network) decided to showcase it on television, probably trying to unify the country and stop the discussions that were going on in Italy due to Expo Milano 2015 and make the population see the positive side of the event. The whole ad plays on the most common Italian stereotypes and tries to reverse them into positive attributes to highlight particular achievements of the nation that are not always known both inside and outside the country. A stereotype involves the reduction and simplification of complex social phenomena into general labelled categories. Such reductions tend to focus on a limited range of characteristics and properties. Thus stereotypes identify general categories of people in terms of some (often arbitrary) distinctive features. These include categorization according to nationality, race, class, gender, deviancy, and so on.” 1

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The ad plays on a rhetoric figure that in speech would be known as a synecdoche (where a part of something is used to describe the whole) which is commonly used when creating stereotypes. Therefore, the whole ad is made up of extreme close ups first decontextualizing a sign or expression in order to create a stereotype, to then go to an establishing shots where we then see that same detail in context. If we analyse the first scene for example the first image we come in contact with is a pair of hands which try to get dust off them. The image is paired with the message “Pizza makers?”, if this message did not appear on the screen up until now we would have had no idea that the ad is related to Italy in any way. This simple message makes the viewer immediately understand that the ad is linked to Italians, because it is common knowledge that pizza is one of the country’s typical dishes and, stereotypically, Italians make and eat pizza almost every day. Once the camera contextualises the hands we see that these have nothing to do with food, but they are, in fact, of an architect who is working on his latest project. This image bewilders the viewer as most people are unable to create a link between large architectures and Italians. The following frame guides the viewer thanks to a written message, which tells us that “Italy is a world leader in the creation of major infrastructures – 1000 construction sites in 90 countries.”.

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The stereotype with Italians and food does not stop here, this ad also reminds the viewers that we Italians are “food enthusiasts”, associating it with the image of a lady closely examining a roll of pasta (tagliatelle, to be precise), only to change the focus later and associating the image with “Italy exports 40 billion euros’ worth of goods in the food & drink industry and related technologies”. While there is surely some truth behind the pizza and pasta labels, as they are two of the main dishes in our country’s cusine, these are definitely not the only ones. Italian cusine has so many dishes, most of which vary from region to region that the stereotype that we only eat pizza and pasta is simply not sustainable. Moreover in a recent study conducted by Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s major newspapers, we see that the mean consumption of pasta saw a reduction from 28 kilos per capita in 2004 to 25,3 kilos per capita in 20132. While pasta consumption is going down, pasta export is rapidly increasing seeing a 55% of the nation’s production being exported. Having said this, we clearly do eat pasta often during the week, but not every day as the stereotype implies. For pizza, Italians are not even the major consumers of the dish, a study shows that my compatriots eat about 7,9 kilos of pizza per year, but Americans almost double us consuming about 13 kilos per year3.

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Another well-known stereotype portrayed in the ad is that Italians talk with their hands. This is transmitted through a close up of a man’s hand moving, only to reveal that the man is giving a presentation and the movement of his hands tells his collaborator when to change the slides to a technical PowerPoint presentation. This label is used to communicate that “Italy is Europe’s second largest exporter – 100 billion euros’ worth of machinery and capital goods”. The stereotype of Italians who speak with their hands is true, we often do, and this type of body language is often incomprehensible to foreigners, it is almost as if, if you want to speak Italian, you have to learn two languages, otherwise you will miss half of what we are saying. There have been studies which try to explain and contextualise the typical gestures Italian do to foreigners, other analyses also have tried to understand where these gestures come from but there has not been a definite answer, some think it is linked to the country’s history and it’s being often under foreign control, therefore a new form of communication had to be developed in order to understand and be understood by the conquering country. Even if the stereotype is true, it is often exaggerated, the movements and signs we use are a few and are used to convey specific ideas or emphasize certain aspects of what we are saying. Having said this, we understand that to people who do not share our same body language it may appear as if we were conducting an invisible orchestra.

Even though it is wrong to reduce a category of people to a label linked to someone’s individual characteristics, it is something we do to simplify our everyday complex reality. Stereotypes are often linked to the ignorance we have about a particular category of people, we do this because, as a species, we don’t like unknown situations and we therefore tend to create a generalisation for what is to us unknown or to explain us something that we don’t seem to understand. Michael Braun, a German journalist who has lived in Italy since 1996, gave the best example of misunderstanding between cultures during his speech at the ‘Festival di Internazionale’ (an event organized by the weekly magazine Internazionale) in October this year4. Speaking about the relationship between Italy and Germany, he said that the perception Germans have of Italians in the European Union is mostly due to the fact that they lack the knowledge about Italy’s economic capabilities, therefore most Germans have no idea that, as the ad showed before, Italy is the second largest exporter in Europe. Due to this lack of knowledge our brain leads us to use shortcuts to counter act this vacuum that it has placing people into small labelled boxes in our mind. Therefore, instead of using our perception to analyse the situation we choose the rapid path of stereotyping because they are a fast and easy way to learn about people. It has to be kept in mind though that this quick route is also a road to bias as we no longer see people as individuals but only as a static category5. Moreover, if someone that should belong to the category we have put her/him in proves us wrong, like the ad does throughout its whole duration, we are taken by surprise and feel disoriented because suddenly our assumed knowledge is shattered.

The creation of stereotypes and generalization in general is very easy, braking them though is extremely difficult. To brake them you need to have many counter-proofs that will demonstrate the stereotype wrong. The difficulty in braking them doesn’t just come from finding many counter proofs to prove them wrong, but also from having to convince an incredibly large amount of people who already believe and have adopted that stereotype. The reason why this ad was so effective in its use of stereotypes and had so much success is because it is not trying to deny the truth that lies behind all the stereotypes they are portraying; it overrules them with irony. As Italians in that video we are not trying to repudiate our love for our cusine, our talking with our hands, our being eternal children at times, party addicts, football fanatics or dolce vita lovers. The video just shows the other side of our story, the one that many don’t get to see because they get so caught up in the stereotypes that have been said about us. This video was really powerful not only outside Italy’s borders; it was extremely helpful also inside the country as many Italians had no idea of our achievements because we are often portrayed as the slacking member of the European Union and this constant portrayal has made many Italians believe that our country is of little to no value.

Advertising makes often use of stereotypes and generalizations and it does so because these are concepts that are easy to grasp by everyone independently from their social or educational background. As ads are short they don’t have the chance to go in depth and analyse each and every aspect of the category they are portraying in order to promote a product/service, therefore they are almost obliged to stereotype. What has to be clear though is that this is only part of the identity of that particular category. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her Ted Talk – The Danger of a Single Story: “a single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are un-true, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”6

  1. Horner, D., Understanding Media Ethics, Sage, 2015, pp. 156 – 157 ↩︎
  2. Si consuma meno pasta, ma se ne vende di più all’estero, Corriere della Sera, 18 Giugno 2014 (http://www.corriere.it/economia/14giugno18/si-consuma-meno-pasta-export-barilla-c635426a-f71b-11e3-a606-b69b7fae23a1.shtml ) ↩︎
  3. Italiani a tutta pizza, 7,6 chili a testa 52mila gli esercizi che non sentono crisi (http://www.italiaatavola.net/articolo.aspx?id=17764 ) ↩︎
  4. An extract of Michael Braun’s speech can be found here: http://intern.az/1vjO ↩︎
  5. This idea is a re-elaboration of the point Kio Stark makes in her Ted Talk “Why you should talk to strangers” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFpDK2KhAgw ) ↩︎
  6. TED Talk – The danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamandaadichiethedangerofasinglestory?language=it ) ↩︎
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Sono un'appassionata di sci e fotografia. Faccio del mio meglio per sopravvivere all'Università, scrivo questo blog e nel 2013 ho aperto slavastudenti.com, un sito per aiutare universitari in crisi.

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