Eastern Europe? Ex-Soviet? A new campaign sets out to end lazy stereotypes

A new advertising campaign from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius wants to show just how outdated stereotypes about Eastern Europe really are.

It’s a drum that Emerging Europe has been beating for sometime: the need for anyone with a stake in the region to draw a line under communism in order to ensure that the divisions of the past do not define the future.

The very name of our organisation, Emerging Europe, stems from a desire to move away from Cold War definitions of the European continent, and to avoid use of the term Eastern Europe, which carries negative connotations and does not even accurately describe countries such as Czechia or Slovenia, whose capitals are further west than Vienna.

Even worse is the use of ex-Soviet or former Soviet to describe countries such as the Baltic states which were occupied by the Soviet Union. As Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielijus Landsbergis, put it last year: “Lithuania never joined the Soviet Union. Moscow illegally occupied our territory, so we resisted until we restored our independence and the Red Army went back home. We’re not former Soviet, we’re never Soviet.”

Now, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius is gently poking fun at these lazy stereotypes with a new campaign aimed at demonstrating just how outdated (the country has been independent for more than three decades) these clichés are.

A recent survey showed that Britons and Germans are just getting familiar with Vilnius: 43 per cent of UK and 62 per cent of German residents are aware of the city and know more than its name.

However, only nine per cent of Britons and eight per cent of Germans have a deeper understanding of the Lithuanian capital. Both the capital and the country suffer from stereotypes that stem from the Cold War era and affect the Central and Eastern Europe region—Russian backwater, Eastern Europe, a poor country.

Another survey revealed that ten per cent of UK and German residents believed Lithuania to be heavily associated with Russia, while for eight per cent of Britons and seven per cent of Germans the word ‘Lithuania’ was synonymous with Eastern Europe. Some four per cent of British residents describe Lithuania as a poor country while five per cent of Germans say it is undiscovered and unknown.

Low expectations are generally formed by pop culture, movies, and the portrayal of Eastern European migrants media.

Numerous countries from the emerging Europe region need to constantly fend off the ‘ex-Soviet’ label. Czechia for instance was recently called “a small ex-Soviet satellite state” by the Wall Street Journal despite the country being a democratic state for 30 years, an important NATO ally, and an avid supporter of Ukraine.

The backlash after the article caused the WSJ to ultimately change the headline. Unfortunately, social media is full of images of what this part of Europe supposedly looks like: vodka, potatoes, grey skies and buildings, as well as an unfriendly population.

However, 59 per cent of British visitors and every second German who has visited Lithuania and its capital say they would happily return. The low expectations of visitors are also swiftly shattered by seeing how much Lithuania differs from the negative Eastern European label.

For instance, the World Happiness Report has just ranked it the world’s happiest country for people under 30. In 2020, Lithuania was first in the EU for real GDP per capita growth, and just last year it was ranked the 12th freest economy in the world and first in the world for public WiFi speed. Geopolitically-wise, the country has been a member of the EU and NATO for 20 years and joined the OECD in 2018.

Changing preconceptions

The new tourism campaign aimed at British and German visitors strives to change Western Europe’s mind about Vilnius.

At first, a commercial depicts the stereotypes of Eastern Europe which still prevail in social and traditional media, as well as communities living outside the region—Soviet-era buildings, drunks defacing the streets, thieves, and shady market sellers—while the narrator, satirically, describes the city as an Eastern European pearl and a photographer’s paradise.

The second part of the commercial breaks these stereotypes—the architecture and streets are colourful rather than monochrome grey, the gastronomical delights rival Europe’s best cuisines, and numerous indoor and outdoor activities gather crowds of thousands. Playful visuals are also used in outdoor advertising in target locations. The imagery in posters offers sharp contrasts between expectations and reality, and urges the passers-by to be open to changing their minds about Vilnius.

Dovilė Aleksandravičienė, CEO of Go Vilnius, the official tourism and business development agency of Vilnius which is behind the campaign, says the commercial is atypical as no tourism agency would ever advertise a destination in a satire if it was close to the truth. However, if the curiosity of potential visitors is piqued after watching the commercial and they search for Vilnius on the internet, the goal has been reached.

“When asked about Vilnius, many international residents either don’t know it or know very little about it,” Aleksandravičienė says.

“It’s normal that our perception of places might be affected by what is featured in media and pop culture. Let’s be fair, Eastern Europe has many stereotypes brought on by the difficulties of the 20th century. What many don’t know is that in the last 30 years, many cities in Eastern Europe have become unrecognisable thanks to rapid changes.

“We are not patronising or critiquing those who still base their knowledge of Vilnius and Lithuania on the prevailing stereotypes but rather laughing at them together and igniting people’s desire to see what reality looks like over here.”

Photo courtesy Go Vilnius.

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