Selling Nationalism

Nov 10, 2012

Indonesian television advertisements are constructing images of Indonesia by appropriating well-known nationalist themes.

To commemorate National Awakening Day in 2010, the health supplement product Fatigon launched a project called The Motivation Movement, which urged Indonesians to work hard and be productive. Viewers are introduced to Pak Solihun as his friend carries him into a hardware store. Solihun cannot walk but the voice-over tells us that he is a motivated man who never succumbs to his condition. This trait is said to represent the national identity and the spirit of Indonesia. We see Solihun assembling electrical equipment well into the night, his energy boosted by the health supplement. He then smiles brightly and the ad moves to display the fruits of his labour. We see a female announcer in front of the building that houses a radio station. At this point viewers are informed that Ahmad Solihun Ihsan is the man behind Radio AS that broadcasts in Indramayu, West Java. He is Fatigon’s chosen role model for productivity. The ad ends with the call to ‘work harder and do your best!’ Valuing self-made people, other individuals celebrated in this series of commercials include Agung Nugroho, who built up a successful laundry business from a single washing machine and dryer to 130 outlets, and Susi Susanti, the world class badminton player. The ad was run in conjunction with a competition in which members of the public were invited to submit ideas for productive and empowering initiatives.

Similar formats appear in commercials for the coffee brand Kapal Api and for Coca Cola. Kapal Api opens with the statement ‘Indonesia, a nation with the spirit to create’. Tradition and modernity are interspersed, with images of young professionals crossing a busy street, football supporters, an academic seminar, a scene of a Hindu woman praying, a young puppeteer performing and a group of men moving a bamboo house. In 2011 the brand launched a program titled A Cup of Spirit for Indonesia inviting people to submit words of encouragement through their website or Twitter account. For every entry submitted the brand pledged to donate two books to schools in nine regions, seven of which are located outside Java. On Youth Pledge Day in 2011, Coca Cola launched a new campaign themed Dare to Change. This was a contest, like the Fatigon competition, to source proposals from the public, which the company would mentor and fund. The accompanying commercial showcased earlier initiatives of the brand in Indonesia, like beach cleaning programs, football competitions and the Coca Cola Learning Centres. The campaign is endorsed by Panji Pragiwaksono, the personality behind the youth-oriented nationalist movement, Indonesia Unite.

These ads differ from the purely nationalistic ones because instead of celebrating cultural diversity they focus on actively bringing about change through collaborations with experienced and well-networked civil society groups. Greater involvement from the public is not only accepted, but encouraged. The message is not that of the richness of cultural heritage but progress through hard labour and encouraging people to work for a better tomorrow. Here the commercial world is tapping into a surge of nationalism among urban Indonesians who believe that nation building is no longer controlled by the state.

Ads generating change?

The first group of ads, which portray Indonesia as a country rich in cultural diversity, appropriate the discourse adopted by the state during the Suharto era. These ads highlight tradition and heritage, while at the same time positioning the audience as visitors and explorers experiencing the local culture as tourists or outsiders. The second group position Indonesia as a nation of strong-willed people, driven to create a better future. By moving away from classic depictions of cultural heritage, they frame Indonesians as agents of change, driven by the motivation to build a better Indonesia.

Implicitly, however, both types of advertisments are directed chiefly at urban middle class Indonesians. This group can afford to be tourists and values modernity, self-direction and upward mobility. It remains to be seen if this second narrative can gain wider ground. If it does, the potential impact on social activism, entrepreneurship and commitment to change might just be what Indonesia needs.

Stefani Haning Swarati is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore and an Asia Research Institute PhD Scholar.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.