Best Fans In the World: Irish Identity in Global Media Culture

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It’s a curious paradox at the heart of digital journalism that while the Internet continues to diminish the culturally constrictive effect of  national political borders, giving users access to content far beyond the limits of their own nation; the appeal of national difference seems to have nonetheless remerged prominently in the digital age. In academic circles, this curious situation has not gone unnoticed with R.J. Holton, among others, arguing that “the local is not vanquished by the global but awakens within it.” Furthermore, the recent resurgence in right wing nationalist political movements in the US, Britain, Austria and elsewhere has not only been cause for concern, but also for significant journalistic investigation.

This revival of nationalism also manifests itself in other, less alarming but nevertheless curious ways. Digital journalism has been notable in leveraging this trend through the foregrounding of local and national identity. From an Irish perspective, the emergence of websites such as Joe.ie (2010), Her.ie (2012) and Buzz.ie (2016), overtly positioning themselves as national outlets operating in an international medium, demonstrates the prominence of the resurgence in the appeal of national identity. This was rarely clearer than an article posted by the Daily Edge in February of this year: ‘9 brilliant Irish responses to the scourge of the general elections posters.’ An Irish humour site tweeting about reactions to the ongoing Irish general election, feeling apparently obliged to highlight the ‘Irishness’ of the “brilliant responses.” Absurd as it may seem, the post gained considerable social media traction (over 100 favourites and over 80 retweets).

The cachet apparently carried by national identity in the modern media sphere is perhaps best demonstrated by examining advertising. Advertising’s leverage of such cultural trends may seem more direct than in journalism, but in other ways the boundaries between the two fields grows progressively blurrier. In 2003 Katherine Toland Frith and Barbara Mueller characterised advertising as an “unwelcome intrusion,” distinct from other forms of media in forcing itself upon the audience. However, the advent of social media has seen journalism intrude upon audiences via sponsored links, retweets and shares. Advertising banners and links embedded in online articles further muddy the waters of where to draw the line between advertising and journalism. On occasion advertising brands have even cut out the middle man, so to speak, by paying for sponsored articles to feature on a website amid its ‘organically’ commissioned articles.

With this in mind, we can examine advertising’s highlighting of the local through a global medium as a window into the appeal of what we might describe as ‘digital cultural nationalism,’ for online journalism. Within the Irish context, the relatively recent rise of Three Mobile –the brand’s share in the Irish mobile phone services market has more than quadrupled over the last four years – is a revealing example of the commercial significance of this appeal. In 2010 Three began sponsoring the Republic of Ireland football (soccer) international team, and in 2014 they took over O2’s role as sponsor to the Irish international rugby union team following their takeover of the latter company. These high profile national sports sponsorship arrangements have been among the biggest factors in their notable rise in consumer engagement.

They are not alone in attempting to connect their brand to national identity through sport. It is a tactic which stretches at least as far back as Guinness’ efforts in post-independence Ireland, but certain elements of Three’s efforts are particularly representative of ‘digital cultural nationalism.’ Notably throughout the advertising campaigns produced for both sponsorships, there is a recurring urge to elevate ‘Irishness’ beyond a being just a sign of cultural distinctiveness and instead into a quality of international renown. ‘All it Takes,’ a 2015 campaign commissioned by Three to spotlight their sponsorship of the Irish rugby team, features multiple references to the Irish players as being “among the best in the world” or “playing at the highest level” in its supplementary material (social media posts, press releases, interviews etc.). The content of the main television advertisement for the campaign stops short of outright proclaiming Ireland’s high standing within world rugby, but the combination of the surreal imagery (Irish players are seen crashing through rhinos and bursting into flames with strength) and narration (which sees team manager Joe Schmidt emphasise the incredible effort it takes to play for the team) implies as much.

An Ode to Fans,’ a 2013 campaign focussing on Irish football fans as part of Three’s sponsorship of the team, sees the narration of the main televised ad laud the Irish supporters as “the best fans in the world,” a sentiment bolstered by statements in supplementary material. Nor are Three alone in their eagerness to celebrate Irish achievement on an international scale. In 2015 Guinness produced an advertisement commemorating the Munster rugby team’s famous 1978 victory over the formidable New Zealand team. Given the worldwide reputation of New Zealand’s All-Blacks, the international renown of Munster’s victory is scarcely disputable, but Guinness committed something of an advertising faux pas in their rush to celebrate it. When a link to the ad was initially posted on the official Guinness Ireland Facebook page, the accompanying caption read:

“31st October 1978. 15 Irish amateurs faced the world champions. There was only going to be one winner, right? #GuinnessRugby”

This assertion drew a variety of derisive replies from users who were quick to point out that not only were the New Zealand team also amateurs (rugby union was professionalised in 1995) but that the first Rugby World Cup wasn’t held until 1987. One particularly irritated user commented that “Guinness researcher prob never played rugby in their life and would not be surprised if they never had a Guinness. Sad state of affairs when something so iconically Irish is put in the hands of people who don’t understand its stature.” It is notable here that in denouncing Guinness’ social media team, the user conflated their perceived lack of interest or knowledge of the sport with that of their own product – an extreme but pointed example of the perils of sports sponsorship.

What emerges from this brief examination of Irish advertisers’ attempts to tap into digital cultural nationalism is the underlying uneasiness of this celebration of the local in the global age. There is a recurring anxiety that assertions of Irish cultural distinction won’t win the attention or affection of the consumer, and instead they must be assured that their nation is worthy of a place in the upper echelons of the globalised world they are increasingly aware of inhabiting. Sport, therefore, proves an excellent vehicle for digital cultural naturalism – creating a space in which nations are clearly distinct from another and a platform for national achievement to be measured and performed on an international scale.

In the recent spate of digital journalistic content centred on the actions of Irish football fans at the 2016 European Championship in France, we see something a ‘perfect storm’ of digital cultural nationalism. The international setting and sporting context provide a platform for the Irish fans to be elevated to objects of global celebration (“the best fans in the world”) while their ‘Irishness’ is continually underlined as the reason for the renown they have attracted. Notably their actions are contrasted with the violence of the English and Russian fans, rendering the very act of not attacking other fans a culturally distinguishing feature. Furthermore, it is not merely the good humour of the Irish fans that was highlighted in the media, but the particular ‘Irishness’ of their merrymaking (Father Ted quotes emblazoned on tricolours, amending traditional team chants when doing good deeds, etc.). The attraction of these articles to an Irish audience is not only that they will recognise the cultural references made by the football fans, but that wider international audience will not. Ireland, in the coverage of the football team’s fans at Euro 2016, remains culturally distinct but internationally lauded. The UEFA European Championship may only come around once every four years, but it’s very likely that advertisers and media outlets will attempt to tap into digital cultural nationalism a good deal more frequently.

Cover Image: ‘An Ode to Fans’ (2013) Three

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