Imagine that yours is a newly independent nation the size of Western Europe. Your country straddles the world’s sixth-largest oilfield. It befriends the United States. It lays out millions to brand itself as one of the most stable, diverse, and rapidly modernizing states on the planet.
Then enters a fictitious reporter, star of the $250 million–grossing film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Suddenly, your unknown country is famous. But it’s been rendered as a medieval backwater populated by rapists and anti-Semites. It’s become notorious for an imaginary festival called “The Running of the Jew.” It’s portrayed as a world center of wife beating. It’s depicted as hiring one-eyed drunkards to pilot the planes of its national airline.
And how has the actual nation of Kazakhstan handled this all-too-extensive exposure? It has vacillated, writes Robert A. Saunders, a historian at the State University of New York at Farmingdale. In responding to Sacha Baron Cohen, a Cambridge University–educated comedian who has promoted Borat into a lucrative specialty, Kazakhstan has tried being tough, branding Cohen’s humor as racism. It’s issued threats and demanded that the character be banned. It’s been nonchalant, saying it can take a joke. And it’s been cynical, touting Kazakhstan as the “perfect home for this autumn’s hottest comedian—Borat.”
The more Kazakhstan fussed, the more people wanted to see the film. And the more people who flocked to the film, the more tourists wanted to go to Kazakhstan. Visa applications in Cohen’s native Britain spiked as Borat became better known.
So in the end, Kazakhstan adopted the attitude of P. T. Barnum—any publicity is good publicity—and proved that not only circuses but even sovereign nations with oil wealth can make money off slander.
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The Source: "Buying into Brand Borat: Kazakhstan's Cautious Embrace of Its Unwanted Son" by Robert A. Saunders, in Slavic Review, Spring 2008.
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