Monday, March 23, 2015

A week without advertising

I just got back from a week in Cuba. For Americans and others who have never visited, apart from the Communist dictatorship and the old cars, it's not that weird a place. People are friendly, tourist areas are well-developed, and they are very slowly starting to evolve into a more entrepreneurial economy.

However, for someone who spends the majority of his waking hours creating advertising and consuming social media, there were two major media differences between my world and theirs:

  • Almost no commercial advertising, with the exception of nationally-owned brands; and
  • Very limited access to wifi or any internet

Cubans are not officially allowed private internet access, to allow the regime to control what news they get from the outside world. They can access at specific public (presumably monitored) areas, and their mobile phones are voice and text only.

My hotel had wifi available in the lobby for a fee, and I could have roamed on a foreign data network, but it seemed like a good opportunity to put myself on a modern media fast. And man! Was that ever refreshing.

I have a reputation for being addicted to Facebook and Twitter, so when I came back home people were surprised that I didn't feel any withdrawal whatsoever. I'm glad I have access to digital media at home, but a short vacation from the 24-hour news cycle and the constant international networking opportunities did wonders for my state-of-mind.

The saddest thing I saw, at our resort, was Canadian and European teenagers hanging out in the lobby to keep their smartphones connected to their peers. They were right beside the finest beach in the Caribbean, surrounded by one of the world's most interesting national cultures, and they couldn't live without knowing what Becky said about Madison today. Their loss.

We even avoided turning on our hotel TV, with its international cable channels, so I literally did not see a private-sector ad all week. Every poster, every billboard, and even every graffiti in Varadero, Matanzas, and Havana was part of the government propaganda machine (see above). But even those communications were few and far between.

Even business signs (this one for Hemingway's hideout in Old Havana) are subtle.
It wasn't until I was stuck in the endless bureaucratic lineups to leave Varadero airport that I spotted what I recognized as advertising, albeit government-owned. And that's just because this Cuban tourism campaign runs in Canada all winter:

Advertising has been my livelihood for 25 years, so I certainly appreciate the industry. But what an interesting experience to be cut off from media saturation, even for a week. It really gives you a sense of perspective.

As Cuba-US relations begin to thaw, I hope my American friends will get a chance to see this country, with its oppressive government but irrepressible culture. Maybe they'll even find a way to somehow embrace democracy and a little capitalism without turning themselves into overstimulated media junkies.

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