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Turkey’s TV celebrities as cultural envoys: the role of celebrity diplomacy in nation branding and the pursuit of soft power

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Turkey’s TV celebrities as cultural envoys: the role of celebrity diplomacy in nation branding and the pursuit of soft power

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ABSTRACT

With the increasing popularity of Turkish television dramas, actors from Turkish TV series have become global celebrities with hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. In this paper, drawing on a political economy of communication analysis, we investigate the ways in which the Turkish government utilizes Turkish TV series’ actors’ celebrity status to further its foreign policy agenda with respect to soft power. We argue that in the Turkish case, celebrity diplomacy or the instru-mentalization of celebrities for state ambitions of soft power necessi-tates a reliance on commercial television exports for nation branding. This brings its own contradictions and consequences as the image and meaning desired by the Turkish government does not always align with what the TV industry creates when competing in the global TV marketplace.

Introduction

Global celebrities have tremendous media clout that can allow them to access and influence a wide range of audiences in ways that would be impossible for international institutions or heads of nation-states. Some are asked to lend their name, money and time for activist causes and others are enlisted as cultural diplomats or goodwill ambassadors by humani-tarian organizations and politicians. Similarly, following the huge success since the late 2000s of Turkish TV exports in reaching transnational audiences and a number of Turkish TV series actors became global celebrities with hundreds of millions of fans worldwide, Turkish state officials and President Erdoğan himself sought to take advantage of their popularity to showcase Turkey and various aspects of modern and traditional Turkish culture. Not only could these TV series be utilized to help the Turkish state improve the image of the country in the world because they appeal to both Western and Eastern audiences, but they could also potentially make the case for Turkey’s foreign policy ambitions ideologically through the plotlines. Therefore, starting in the 2000s, when the rise of Turkish TV exports coincided with the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) new foreign policy strategy of improving Turkey’s soft power and investments abroad, the TV industry was pushed to take part in nation branding. This new strategy positioned the TV industry as a gateway for a Turkish presence in different regions, as expressed by Şekib Avgagiç, the chairman of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce: “Our lifestyle and ways of consumption reach the countries abroad through TV series, then our products arrive . . .

They prepare the countries ready for our entrepreneurs to enter those markets” (Türk yapımları, Cannes dizi fuarında beğeniye sunuldu, 2018). With such instrumentalist logic, various Turkish state institutions, such as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Economics and several Chambers of Commerce, chose to take advantage of Turkish actors’ global celebrity status by enlisting them in state nation branding and promotional efforts like attracting tourists, developing diplomatic relations, and expanding business opportunities.

However, the increasingly polarized context of Turkey’s political and socio-cultural relations and the transnationalization of the Turkish TV industry in the competitive neoliberal context of international television have complicated the politics of representation and created various dilemmas for the TV celebrities and executives involved in nation branding. Not only are they faced with government demands and support for content that fits into the governments’ ideas of how best to capture Turkish identity and culture televisually, but they also face the challenges posed by the competitive global television industry to create novel, contemporary and relevant content for diverse global tastes. In an increasingly repressed media environment in which a great majority of television channels belong to corporations with close ties to Erdoğan (Sözeri, 2015), some Turkish TV industry players and celebrities readily choose to lend a hand in the government effort to utilize TV exports for economic and political reasons. Others, fearing government intervention or direct targeting, choose to cooperate by changing plotlines, producing content for new digital platforms for niche audiences or rallying behind the official soft power discourse of the government (Algan, 2020).

Our paper aims to investigate the ways in which the Turkish government utilizes Turkish TV actors’ celebrity status to further their foreign policy agenda with respect to soft power via a political economy of communication analysis. While the TV industry promotes them as global stars, the state institutions strive to present them as desirable representatives of the nation-state by highlighting their national identities. In order to engage in a nuanced analysis of soft power and nation branding from a media industry studies perspective, we analyze the larger power dynamics among Turkey’s media and government institutions by illustrating how internationally known Turkish TV series actors such as Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, Beren Saat, Can Yaman, Halit Ergenç, Özcan Deniz, and Songül Öden negotiate their celebrity diplomat roles as cultural representatives or “envoys,” as they are referred to by the government. We argue that in the Turkish case, celebrity diplomacy or the instrumen-talization of celebrities for state ambitions necessitates a reliance on commercial television exports for nation branding, which comes with its own contradictions as the image and meaning desired by the Turkish government does not always align with what the TV industry creates when competing in the global TV marketplace.

In this paper, we first review the relationship among celebrity diplomacy, soft power and nation branding while summarizing the Turkish government’s neo-Ottomanist aspirations. Following the methodology section, we then discuss the rise of Turkish TV series abroad and government efforts to utilize TV celebrities in nation branding and the consequences of such demands on the TV industry and content created.

Read the whole paper at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15405702.2021.1913494

By: Ece Algan & Yeşim Kaptan

California State University, San Bernardino, California, USA;

Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, USA

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