Venus the Influencer? An Italian Tourism Campaign Prompts Backlash.

If Italy’s tourism ministry hoped to make waves with a new marketing campaign promoting the country’s many wonders, it certainly hit the mark, though not, perhaps, in the way the government had imagined.

Presented last week, the “Open to Meraviglia” campaign — which uses the Italian word for “wonder” — quickly stumbled.

A computerized version of Botticelli’s Venus branded as a “virtual influencer” immediately boomeranged into a meme-fest on social media as critics said it played off stereotypes about Italy. A sharp-eyed observer noticed that the winery featured in a video explaining the campaign was actually in Slovenia, Italy’s neighbor to the northeast.

And a marketing company snapped up the domain name of the campaign when it noticed that it had not been registered. “Marketing is a serious thing,” the company, Marketing Toys, wrote on the newly registered website.

Even some members of the government were perplexed by the campaign, which was produced with the national tourism agency ENIT.

The deputy culture minister, Vittorio Sgarbi, said he was baffled by its slogan, given that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy, recently proposed legislation that would fine Italians who use foreign words in official communication.

“Why use ‘Open to Meraviglia,’” Mr. Sgarbi told the news agency ANSA. “It would have been enough to write: ‘Italia Meraviglia.’”

The Italian government spent 9 million euros, almost $10 million, on the new yearlong global campaign, which aims to bolster tourism to Italy, a sector still recovering from the disastrous downturn in travel largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic. After a considerable uptick in 2022, tourism experts have expressed optimism that the current season could break records.

Armando Testa group, the advertising agency that conceived the tourism campaign, characterized the figure of Venus from Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence as “one of the best-known women in the world” and a good way to represent Italy.

“Venus is back as an allegory of rebirth and renewal,” read a blurb on the company’s website.

But some critics complained that turning the Renaissance icon into a modern-day influencer played into old stereotypes about Italy.

“Botticelli’s Venus transformed into Barbie,” sniffed one commentator, while another dismissed the campaign as a mishmash of predictable clichés “where the only thing missing is the mandolin, which, as is well known, every true Italian” strums after eating their pizza. (The campaign featured Venus as a hip fashionista, snapping selfies in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, munching on pizza on Lake Como and posing in front of the Colosseum with a bicycle.)

Undaunted by the criticism, Daniela Santanchè, the tourism minister, said she stood by the campaign, which officially begins in May. “One of the objectives of this international campaign is to reach out to young people, so we used the instruments and language close to them,” she said in a radio interview.

The campaign was also mocked when it was discovered that the German version of the website had been too literal in some translations — rendering the city of Brindisi as “Toast” (in Italian a “brindisi” is a celebratory toast when drinking), among other errors. The German version has been taken down.

The footage of the vineyard in Slovenia had many Italians scratching their heads, especially given the importance of Italian wine to national identity.

“I don’t want to just mock the Ministry of Tourism” because using stock photographs or video is normal — “everybody does it, so it’s not a problem,” said Massimiliano Milic, a Trieste-based filmmaker. “But at least just double check what you’re using.” Mr. Milic noticed the similarities between the sun-kissed patio in the video and a vineyard he knew in Slovenia just across the border from Italy and posted his findings online. The images came from a stock portal website, and were not obviously identified as being shot in Slovenia, he said.

“It’s an error that can happen,” he said. But in the case of “an official video, made for the Italian government, for the ministry of tourism, I just don’t know how it’s possible,” or why the agency had not fact-checked properly, let alone not shot original footage, he added.

Some critics noted that Italy’s national tourism campaigns had a history of falling flat. That includes a homespun 2007 campaign featuring an Italian minister inviting tourists to “Please visit our country,” the 2010 “Magic Italy” campaign voiced over by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the more recent digital platform to promote the 2015 Milan Expo, which was mocked when it was first introduced for being available only in Italian and for leaving Sicily off its map.

But the creators of the Venus campaign are finding solace in the saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

On Thursday, the Armando Testa group took out a full-page ad in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera with the (ungrammatical) headline “Open to GRAZIE” to note that in the days since it had been presented, the campaign had “broken the wall of indifference and given life to a lively cultural debate.”

Venus was grateful, too, the ad agency wrote. “It was 500 years since she’d been so talked about. If this isn’t a wonder.”

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