April 4, 2024

Vilnius Pokes Fun at Western Stereotypes About Eastern Europe With Whimsical Campaign

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, breaks free of common Eastern European stereotypes with a new tourism advertising campaign. Contrasting the low expectations vs. reality, the city pokes fun at the negative preconceptions of international visitors and invites them to discover the real Vilnius.

April 4th, 2024. Popular holiday cities like Paris, New York, or Rome draw hordes of tourists all year round. Sometimes reality is different from expectations — some destinations have been nothing but disappointment to travelers with overpriced entertainment, danger to tourists, and materialistic atmosphere being key sources of an unsatisfactory visit. But what happens when tourist expectations are already low?

This is what Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has set out to rectify with a new campaign “Expectations vs. Reality.” Making fun of stereotypes overseas residents frequently have, the city has created a commercial that shows the outdated stereotypes about Eastern Europe and the reality of Vilnius.

Eastern European stereotypes reign strong

A recent survey has shown that Britons and Germans are just getting familiarized with Vilnius: 43% of UK and 62% of German residents are aware of the city and know more than its name. However, only 9% of Britons and 8% of Germans have a deeper understanding of the Lithuanian capital. Both the capital and the country suffer from stereotypes that stem from the Cold War era and affect the Central and Eastern Europe region which broke free from the Soviet Union — “Russian backwater,” Eastern Europe, “a poor country,” etc. Another survey revealed that 10% of UK and German residents believed Lithuania to be heavily associated with Russia, and for 8% of Britons and 7% of Germans the word “Lithuania” was synonymous with Eastern Europe. 4 % of British residents describe Lithuania as a poor country while 5 % of Germans say it is undiscovered and unknown.

Low expectations are generally formed by pop culture, movies, and the Eastern European immigrants’ portrayal in the media. Numerous countries from the Eastern European region need to constantly fend off the “ex-Soviet” labels. For instance, the Czech Republic has recently been called “a small ex-Soviet satellite state” by the Wall Street Journal despite the country being a democratic state for 30 years, an important NATO ally, and an avid supporter of Ukraine. The backlash after the article caused WSJ to ultimately change the headline which signifies the need for showing a realistic and up-to-date portrait of the region. Unfortunately, social media is full of images of what this part of Europe supposedly looks like: vodka, potatoes, grey sky and buildings, as well as an unfriendly population.

However, 59% of British visitors and every second German, who have already visited the capital and the country, say they would happily return. The low expectations of visitors are also swiftly shattered by seeing how much Lithuania differs from the negative Eastern European label. For instance, the World Happiness Report has just ranked it the world’s happiest country for people under 30. In 2020, Lithuania was the first in the EU for real GDP per capita growth, and just last year it was ranked the 12th freest economy in the world and first in the world for public WiFi speed. Geopolitically-wise, the country has been a member of the EU and NATO for 20 years and joined the OECD in 2018.

New campaign to change preconceptions

The new tourism campaign aimed at British and German visitors strives to change Western Europe’s mind about Vilnius. At first, the commercial depicts the cliche stereotypes of Eastern Europe which still prevail in social and traditional media, as well as communities living outside the region — Soviet-era buildings, drunks defacing the streets, thieves, and shady market sellers — while the narrator, satirically, describes the city as an Eastern European pearl and a photographer’s paradise.

The second part of the commercial breaks these stereotypes — the architecture and streets are colorful rather than monochrome grey, the gastronomical delights rival Europe’s best cuisines, and numerous indoor and outdoor activities gather crowds of thousands. Playful visuals are also used in outdoor advertising in target locations. The imagery in posters offers sharp contrasts between expectations and reality, and urges the passers-by to be open to changing their minds about Vilnius.

Dovilė Aleksandravičienė, CEO of Go Vilnius, the official tourism and business development agency of Vilnius which is behind the “Expectations vs. Reality” campaign, says the commercial is atypical as no tourism agency would ever advertise a destination in a satire if it was close to the truth. However, if the curiosity of potential visitors is piqued after watching the commercial and they search for Vilnius on the internet, the goal has been reached.

“When asked about Vilnius, many international residents either don’t know it or know very little about it. It’s normal that our perception of places might be affected by what is featured in media and pop culture. Let’s be fair, Eastern Europe has many stereotypes brought on by the difficulties of the 20th-century geopolitical events,” Aleksandravičienė said. “What many don’t know is that in the last 30 years, many cities in Eastern Europe have become unrecognizable thanks to rapid changes. We are not patronizing or critiquing those who still base their knowledge of Vilnius and Lithuania on the prevailing stereotypes but rather, in a true ‘Unexpectedly Amazing’ Vilnius style, laugh at them together and ignite people’s desire to see what reality looks like over here.”

Reality — bold and artistic cosmopolis

Just like Lithuania, Vilnius presents a shocking reality to visitors with its vibrant cultural, gastronomical, and artistic life, thriving startup ecosystem, international business endeavors, and high-quality education. As the European Green Capital for 2025 and the fourth greenest city in the EU as per European Environment Agency’s 2022 data, the city lives up to its title. Numerous eco-conscious initiatives like hydrogen-powered buses being launched into the streets by 2026 are continuously implemented, and lush greenery has been incorporated into the street architecture.

The UNESCO-listed Old Town is ceaselessly buzzing with excitement from visitors and residents alike. The walkable streets provide many opportunities to discover gastronomical wonders like the iconic cold pink soup, and the city’s restaurants, such as Džiaugsmas and Nineteen18, have made it to the world’s best restaurant lists. Last year, Vilnius celebrated its 700th anniversary, presenting the visitors and residents with a program full of art, music, theatre, and events. The 2024 event program also features an impressive lineup: Pink Soup Festival will return for the second time to honor the iconic cold pink soup on 1 June, a historic Song Festival celebrating the 100th anniversary and uniting thousands of choristers will be held on 29 June-6 July, and one of the largest summertime events, As Young As Vilnius festival, will invite music enthusiasts to live performances on 25 July. 

The “Expectations vs. Reality” campaign video is available here.