Selling nationalism
Published: Oct 21, 2012

Stefani Haning Swarati

The national flag is the central theme for the campaign launch by phone company Nokia
Stefani Haning Swarati

'Beautiful is my country. Beautiful is Indonesia, my pride.' This slogan could have been plucked from any number of state-sponsored campaigns, but in fact it is taken from a recent television commercial advertising a popular brand of energy drink. Such appeals to nationalism are now ubiquitous in commercials screened on Indonesian television stations, with domestic and multinational companies creating ads for fruit drinks, instant noodles, coffee, cigarettes and health supplements referencing the idea of Indonesia as a nation.

The brand Kuku Bima used this particular slogan as an advertisement for its energy drinks, launched in 2009. Like many commercials of this genre, it appears to take inspiration from the national motto, Unity in Diversity, making use of aerial shots showing a natural rock formation in an azure blue sea. Destinations including Papua, North Sumatra, Maluku, Labuan Bajo and Semarang feature in different versions of the commercial. A different ad for the beverage NutriSari opens with a close-up of a boy blowing a conch shell, his body and face colourfully painted, wearing a garb of feathers and shells. It is followed by on-screen text proclaiming this to be ‘the face of Papua’. The sequence continues with shots of dancing adults in similar costumes. Slipped in between these two visions of ‘traditional’ culture is a scene of a man and woman clapping and laughing in ‘modern’ dress. She is wearing sunglasses and a camera hangs from his neck, a not so subtle suggestion that they are tourists watching the dance performance. Similar scenes follow as the ad moves through the cultures of Ambon, Java, Bali and Betawi.

Cigarette companies are also joining in this celebration of Indonesia. One ad for the brand Djarum Super aired in 2011 shows three men setting out to explore the country. Inspired by the travel journal genre, the title of the ad, My Great Adventure Indonesia, appears in English. The adventurers in this ad visit a new location each day, including a jeep ride into the heart of the Sumatran jungle, an elephant tour at Way Kambas and an opportunity to surf the waves at Kuta beach.

A similar sense of exploration is conveyed in a commercial for cigarette brand Gudang Garam. Titled My Home, My Indonesia, it was first aired to commemorate Independence Day in 2006 but continued over subsequent years. The voice-over recounts a tale of discovery: ‘When I see something that I have never seen before my eyes are opened. How beautiful is this country.’ Shots of vintage-era maps are combined with a female model and four children playfully engaging with all the things that nature and culture have to offer. While children might represent what is beautiful about Indonesia, they are a provocative choice of subject for a tobacco company.

Another company that harnesses Indonesia’s diversity is Indomie, a popular brand of instant noodles. In 2009 the brand launched a series of ads depicting various parts of Indonesia, identifiable by their physical landmarks, landscapes and traditional dances. Singers take turns to sing a line from the jingle in regional languages including Manadonese, Ambonese, Balinese, Javanese, as well as in Indonesian. The jingle emphasises ‘our’ diversity in taste, culture and language. Yet there is one thing that ‘we’ all have in common, and this, always voiced in Indonesian, is a taste for Indomie. At the end of the ad, the cast each raise a bowl of noodles as they gather in a field with high-rise buildings in the background. Arguably, this depiction of diversity was so appealing that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) used a similar ad for his 2009 election campaign. The campaign ad featured the same music and similar scenes depicting landscapes and people from the different regions in Indonesia. Only the lyrics of the presidential campaign advertisement were changed to conclude not with ‘Indomie, my taste’ but with ‘SBY, my president’.

The national motto, Unity in Diversity, was used by the New Order as a nation-building strategy in response to the challenges of a large, archipelagic and plural country. As these television commercials suggest, diversity remains a key theme in the construction of Indonesian identity. To varying degrees, the implied power disparity of the New Order period lingers within these ads. The audience are asked to identify with modern, mobile tourists and explorers who come to experience traditional local life and pristine nature. Maps with place names imply that these regions are unfamiliar to the audience. The depiction of ‘local’ children associates locals with purity, innocence and happiness. Notably, Papua appears in the majority of these commercials. Depicting Papuans as people who look and dress differently, Papua appeals as the most distinctive part of Indonesia, and a catchy way for advertisers to substantiate the idea that Indonesia is a country of diversity.

A persistent and persevering nation

While the idea of Indonesia as a country of cultural diversity is the most dominant theme in commercials, they also send a message about perseverance. A host of brands are busy promoting Indonesians, and their own companies, as contributing to the progress of the nation. The Indonesians in these ads are resolute, courageous and active. In 2009 Nokia launched a new telephone at an event titled Voice Your Action for Indonesia. Individuals and groups with a commitment to advancing the country were invited to promote their causes, with representatives from organisations like Bike to Work, Sahabat Museum, Coin a Chance, Indonesia United, Indonesia Bertindak and Driving Skills for Life taking to the stage as part of the commercial campaign. There were performances of traditional dances. But the emphasis was on building the nation through concrete forms of activism.

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 (swarati@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore and an Asia Research Institute PhD Scholar.


Inside Indonesia 110: Oct-Dec 2012