kenny hodgart

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Tokyo’s Olympic organisers are smarter than the PR hustlers think

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

You have probably noticed that there is something of a backlash underway against the free movement of money. In America and Europe, even people who were for it have looked at how the wind’s blowing and are suddenly against it. Borders and barriers and sounding like you’ve read a Noam Chomsky book are in vogue. Free trade is being spoken of in tones usually reserved by conspiracy theorists for the Jesuits or the Bilderberg Group.

Some aspects of globalisation are likely invulnerable, though. However far the nations of the world opt to go in protecting their own industries against foreign encroachment, or in turning the screws on capital flows, the universal triumph of branding seems a fait accompli.

Branding has gone viral – in the way that pathogens are viral. It is both a pollutant and a parasite. Every organisation under the sun has been hoodwinked into adopting a “vision”, and a “mission”, and “values”. It is all so much tumescent mumbo jumbo, but the hubris of the so-called creative industries has conquered the globe.

That is why when the PR and marketing monkeys mess up, it becomes news. On the face of it, this is what has happened with the Tokyo Olympic Games over the last year. First the British architect Zaha Hadid’s winning design for a new stadium for 2020 was thrown over due to exorbitant costs and another bid hastily selected. Then along came a plagiarism controversy over the logo. I am not so sure, though: I think perhaps the Japanese organisers are smarter than all the PR hustlers competing for their largesse give them credit for.

The original winning proposal for the Games emblem, by Kenjiro Sano, was withdrawn late last year. A theatre in the Belgian city of Liege had said it must have been copied from their own logotype and threatened to sue. Sano’s design, an assortment of shapes arranged to form a “T”, certainly looked like something you had seen before. Quite possibly a “T”. At any rate, it hardly rivalled Caravaggio in its originality.

A few days ago, a new design shortlist was revealed. The selection process had been opened to the public and the 15,000 entries received have been whittled down to four. Stressing their “outstanding” qualities, Ryohei Miyata, head of the Tokyo 2020 emblem committee, told journalists: “I’m proud to say that these are the best works at this point.”

I have long believed having a sense of humour to be among the most vital qualities in a public functionary. Mr Miyata is therefore to be congratulated. Unkind appraisals of previous Olympic logos have likened them to drawings done by slightly backwards children. At least two of the four presented for public consultation by Miyata et al fall into this category, which may or may not be explicable by the fact that over a thousand Japanese schoolchildren entered.

In any event, the important thing is that throwing the contest open has irked the creative wallahs. The American Institute of Graphic Arts says the design profession has been “disrespected”. I don’t know; maybe they’re miffed about the money. The emblem for the London Olympics, which looked like some pieces of broken glass, cost the British public £400,000 (HK$4.5 million). The winning design in Japan will be awarded ¥1 million (HK$70,000) and a ticket to the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Same result, fraction of the cost.

The joke gets even better, though, when you consider the stress put on the committee’s rigorous “international trademark verification procedures” to ensure that the designs were all original this time. According to a statement on the subject, applicants were referred to the Tokyo 2020 Games Vision and “key concepts” for inspiration.

Alas, there is nothing original whatsoever contained in these sources of inspiration. They tell us that the Games are “innovative”. There is some drivel about diversity (“Accepting one another”) and some equally nebulous stuff about legacy. And there is a derisory nod to actual sport: “Striving for your personal best”. One could be reading about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong government, or hell, who knows, the Bilderberg Group.

It’s conceivable that I’m wrong about this but what I’d like to believe the Japanese are saying here is that all corporate emblems are rubbish, modern corporate branding is stupid and we hope you enjoy the Games, lol. As with the stadium, they’re just not up for being rinsed financially. Fair play to them.

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Scots and Japanese locked in new space race

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

It’s become one of those things people drop into conversations to make themselves sound knowledgeable: Japanese whisky is the best in the world nowadays. Better than the stuff from Ireland and America, don’t you know, and also that place where they make Scotch. Yes, yes: Scotland.

It is true that the Japanese are winning all sorts of awards for their whisky. Most notably, something called the Whisky Bible last year named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, by Suntory, the world’s best whisky, with nary a Scottish entry in the top five.

The ascendancy of Nipponese nips should come as no surprise. For a start, it is well-known that the Japanese are terrible swots and brilliant at copying other people’s things and making them better. And secondly, they’ve been at it for long enough: Suntory was founded in 1923, which is ages ago. Back then, most Scotch was still undrinkable, and most people in Scotland were blind and/or raving mad on account of it.

The sudden popularity of Japanese whisky, catalysed by the whole winning awards thing, was not foreseen, however – even by its distillers. Which is why, as it happens, they’re running out of casks that are ready to bottle.

Meanwhile, the Scots have not taken this reverse lying down. No danger – if the Japanese (and the Taiwanese, whose Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique won best single malt at this year’s World Whiskies Awards) can make proper whisky, then, by the ghost of John Logie Baird, cultivating a little tea is not beyond the ingenuity of my fellow northern Britons.

Earlier this year, a smoky-tasting white tea grown on Scotland’s very first tea plantation, in Perthshire, by The Wee Tea Company, was duly named best tea in the world at the Salon de The awards in Paris. I have no idea why the French consider themselves so expert on the subject, but there you have it: Scotland rules tea.

Now I read that, contrary to the notion of it being the quintessential English drink, Scotland also rules gin. According to the London Times, UK exports of gin are up 37 per cent in five years, largely due to demand for premium tipples from Scottish distilleries, including Hendrick’s and Tanqueray. In Georgian and Victorian times, Londoners drank so much gin it rendered men impotent and women sterile, but seemingly now even that which is labelled “London dry gin” is more likely to originate from Scottish stills than English ones. One can almost hear Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s secessionist First Minister, cackling away.

Now that things are going all “craft” on the gin front, Hong Kong, predictably, has its very own circuit of gin bars run and frequented by men with awful Victorian-sized beards and charging modern-day Shoreditch prices, only doubled. Good luck to them, although the drink’s aptness to induce maudlin tendencies does not, perhaps, commend it altogether in an era of impending economic dissolution.

It has long troubled me, incidentally, that your average Hong Kong barman cannot grasp that gin and tonic is served with lime (or indeed lime juice instead of tonic, if you’re the subaltern in John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song). All too often lemon, with the wrong gin, introduces an unwelcome hint, I find, of Pocari Sweat – the Japanese sports drink made from Pocaris, that lesser-known member of the citrus family.

I hasten to add here that on its own Pocari Sweat is a faultless beverage and an excellent hangover cure. As such, I can think of no more fitting product to pioneer branding on the moon – as it will next month, when its owner, Otsuka, sends a rocket there with a capsule containing Pocari Sweat, in powder form. The company’s laudable idea is that at some future date, present-day children inspired by the mission to become astronauts will touch down and be able to relieve their hangovers, or perchance simply their thirsts, by mixing the powder with the (currently arid) moon’s own water.

What is not admitted by the Japanese is that their designs are very much part of a beverage-centric space race in the making. The Scots, their principal adversaries, struck an early blow: some vials of unmatured malt from Ardbeg Distillery on Islay have just returned to earth after being transported to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket in October 2011. The whisky had orbited the earth for 1,045 days and was found afterwards by the distillery’s tasters to have a more “intense” flavour, although it’s unlikely they were about to declare “it tastes just the same” after going to all that trouble.

Another other piece of whisky-related news is that Whisky Galore!, the 1949 Ealing comedy set on a remote Scottish island, whose inhabitants appropriate a shipwrecked cargo of whisky, is currently being re-made. I would not be surprised to discover that the whole story has been relocated to space, nor that some role had been found for the Japanese as villains.