Is Finland in Finnish Popular Culture? Part I

The McDonald's in Oulu hopes to entice consumers with the flavors of America (image by author).

The McDonald’s in Oulu hopes to entice consumers with the flavors of America (image by author).

It initially seems somewhat oxymoronic to suggest that there might be a distinctive Finnish popular culture:  that is, most of the mass cultural products in Finland are the same as those nearly anywhere, with popular cultural staples like Batman, Lady Gaga, and Halo firmly situated in Finnish consciousness.  It is not especially shocking that Finland cannot claim an array of unique popular cultural products, because most popular culture does not have isolated roots in a specific nation or culture;  that is, popular culture emerges from a transnational media and circulates in a widely shared global consumer culture that only strategically identifies its origins (e.g., the transparent nationalistic sales pitch of “Made in the USA”, the anti-consumption politics that cast McDonalds as American, or suggesting that Finlandia captures some “real” essence of Finnish vodka).

Video games, television programs, fast food, movies, clothes, theme parks, and sporting events are all manufactured and marketed by corporate consumer interests committed to profit and the reproduction of power inequalities, and some theorists reduce them simply to economic vessels, mechanisms of oppression, and something “inauthentic.”  Yet those products are the contested ground of popular culture, sources of widely shared desire and pleasure that cannot be reduced simply to ideological incorporation.  Much of the appeal of popular culture is that it can be defined in so many contextually distinctive forms, and when Big Macs, Downton Abbey, and Rihanna arrive in Finland they inevitably are received in a vast range of ways.  Donald Duck (Aku Ankka), for instance, is featured in the most popular weekly publication in Finland, where he enjoys more popularity than he has ever secured in the US and easily outpaces the popularity of Mickey Mouse.  Finnish author Hannu Raittila suggests that Finns glimpse themselves in Donald Duck, who is “forever getting into difficulties or coming under threat from some direction or another. The duck hero has to get himself out of all manner of unexpected and unreasonable scrapes using only his wits and the slim resources he can put his hands on, all of which meshes nicely with the popular image of Finland as driftwood in the crosscurrents of world politics.”  Introduced to Finland in 1951, Donald’s arrival “coincided with Finland’s metamorphosis from an agrarian state to a post-modern, post-industrial one.  Little boys and girls in the rural Finland of the 1950s thirsted for the tales from Duckburg, which contained such modern features as urban life, the spread of the motor car, self-service shopping, large supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and golf.  These were details taken from American culture that have subsequently become part and parcel of the reality of a modernised Finland.”  In 1999 Donald’s Uncle Scrooge even was featured in a comic adaptation The Quest for Kalevala, adapting Finland’s national epic.

Angry Birds' most recent version joins forces with Star Wars (image courtesy Rovio).

Angry Birds’ most recent version joins forces with Star Wars (image courtesy Rovio).

Nevertheless, there are a few prominent Finnish contributions to the global popular cultural landscape.  Few of those products are better-known or compelling than the story of the multi-colored Angry Birds who are seeking the return of their eggs from a herd of green pigs.  There may be nothing particularly Finnish about the Angry Birds game, and in that sense it is actually quite a lot like most popular cultural products; that is, it hides it origins unless they help sell the product by somehow giving it more desirability.  Angry Birds’ makers at Rovio Entertainment continually launch new versions of the game (including a Star Wars themed Angry Birds version in November, 2012), and the game is now a brand that appears in a wide range of commodities.  Angry Birds is the single most profitable iPhone app ever sold in the UK, and Apple indicated that it is the most downloaded paid app ever.

An Angry Birds promotion at a Chinese McDonalds (image courtesy dcmaster).

An Angry Birds promotion at a Chinese McDonalds (image courtesy dcmaster).

The success of Angry Birds has reportedly encouraged more apps developers from Finland, including Clash of Clans’ Helsinki-based developers Supercell, and Fingersoft (based here in Oulu), the producers of Hill Climb Racing.   Angry Birds may owe some debt to Finns’ fervent attachment to mobile phones; the world’s first mass-marketed mobile phone (the Nokia 9000 Communicator) was sold in Finland in 1996, and the country has always been among the world’s most devoted users of cell phones (in 1999, Jukka-Pekka Puro recognized that no other country equaled the 78% of Finnish households already owning a mobile phone, and Finns remain deeply committed to cell phones today).  The international shift to mobile phones and tablets benefitted the gaming industry in Finland while Nokia’s simultaneous contraction reportedly has provided that emergent Finnish gaming industry more skilled engineers.  Supercell’s CEO Ilkaa Paananen suggested that “Helsinki is the best city in the world to build games at the moment.  People understand that it’s possible to become global from Finland.”
The mass success of Angry Birds, though, may have more to do with its aggressive branding and international corporate investment than it has to do with the creative climate in Helsinki, even though government support and groups like Play Finland (which publicizes gaming firms and projects across the country) are certainly important.  In November, Bloomberg reported that Rovio had secured $42 million in venture capital in 2011, and 30% of Rovio’s profits come from branded commodity sales including $400 million in plush toys alone.  Angry Birds soda is selling as profitably as Coke and Pepsi in Finland and is set to soon be sold in New Zealand and Australia; an Angry Birds debit card is coming to the US in early 2013; an Angry Birds cookbook features egg recipes; Finnair has painted some planes with Angry Birds’ motifs; Rovio offers location-based Angry Birds games in 1500 Chinese McDonalds; an Angry Birds Land opened in Sarkanniemi Amusement Park in Tampere in 2012, another opened in Sundown Adventureland in the UK, and the parks are expanding to China.  An unlicensed Angry Birds temporary attraction was opened in September, 2012 in the Window of the World amusement park in Changsha, China as part of its month-long “Stress Reducing Festival,” and in an odd referentiality the attraction sat in the park’s “American Zone, next to a scaled-down replica of Mount Rushmore.”

Angry Birds' Helsinki shop (image courtesy Rovio).

Angry Birds’ Helsinki shop (image courtesy Rovio).

Every staple of popular culture eventually is self-referenced in other popular discourses (as when The Simpsons parody everything from Behind the Music to Rush Limbaugh), and Angry Birds has reached that standing.  Angry Birds’ music was featured in the Israeli comedy Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), and the video Angry Birds Peace Treaty has more than 12.5 million YouTube viewings.  Pinterest has hundreds of Angry Birds’ boards with Angry Bird products and craft ideas, and Rovio has an official Angry Birds Pinterest site.  Angry Birds’ branding of Star Wars pairs two of popular culture’s most prominent symbols; in March, 2012 Angry Birds Space was introduced to the world by astronaut Donald Pettit from aboard the international space station, using the angry birds to demonstrate microgravity patterns employed in the new game; British Prime Minister David Cameron, Salman Rushdie, and Conan O’Brien are all among the fans of Angry Birds; and Angry Birds has been referenced in television shows including 30 Rock, tosh.O, and The Daily Show.  The most interesting popular reference may be from artist Evan Roth, who produced a work called Angry Birds All Levels.  Angry Birds All Levels reveals the 300 exact finger swipes needed to complete the game, underscoring the innocuous hand and finger movements that we use to manipulate knowledge and experience filtered through handheld devices.

The March 2012 debut of Angry Birds Space included its introduction aboard the International Space Station and this bird attached to Seattle's Space Needle (image courtes Rovio).

The March 2012 debut of Angry Birds Space included this bird attached to Seattle’s Space Needle (image courtes Rovio).

It is not clear that any country has a truly “national” popular culture, even the US, which is often blamed for inflicting a wave of questionable products like Jersey Shore, Justin Bieber (technically Canadian, but America’s fault nonetheless), and Thomas Kinkade on the planet.  Mass cultural industries nearly all have a significant presence in the US and aspire to satisfy American consumers’ tastes, acknowledging the wealth and sheer numbers of American shoppers, so inevitably much of global popular culture reflects what marketers are trying to sell to Americans.  Yet ultimately the most lucrative popular cultural products secure international success, which demands being embedded in global networks of venture capital and marketing that reaches beyond any single country’s shores, including Finland.  Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, Finns’ foothold in international popular culture is reflected in the general absence of references to such products as distinctively Finnish, including Angry Birds.

In Part II, we will turn our attention to perhaps the most prominent and culturally distinctive of Finland’s popular cultural products:  the Moomins.

Taina Kinnunen, Tiina Suopajärvi, and Johanna Ylipulli

2011 Connecting People – Renewing Power Relations? A Research Review On The Use Of Mobile Phones. Sociology Compass 5(12):1070-1081. (subscription access)

Jukka-Pekka Puro

2002 Finland: A Mobile Culture.  In Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, edited by James E. Katz, Mark Aakhus, pp.19-29.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

McDonald’s China image courtesy dcmaster

The Culture of Cold and Contentment

Few descriptions of Finland ignore the impression of the environment on Finnish culture (image from Oulanka National Park courtesy purplespace).

In the wake of World War II Julian Steward led a wave of anthropologists focused on culture as an adaptation to physical and social environments, a body of theory referred to as “cultural ecology.”  Dissatisfied with prevalent explanations of cultural change, Steward coined the term cultural ecology in his 1955 study Theory of Culture Change, arguing that culture and cultural transformation were direct reflections of environmental adaptation.   In 1962 Charles Frake borrowed from biological systems metaphors when he defined cultural ecology as the study of “the role of culture as a dynamic component of any ecosystem.”  Steward and a host of scholars examining the relationship between culture and the environment have emphasized that cultures change in direct response to the possibilities provided by a concrete environmental context, so classic studies have been conducted in arctic and equatorial settings where some cultures have crafted clever responses to challenging environments.

Snow covers much of the landscape for six months in northernmost Finland (image courtesy Markus YK).

Most definitions of Finnish life place the environment in general and cold in particular at the heart of Finnish culture, heritage, and psychology.  Since the ice sheets receded from Finland, the environmental landscape has had a profound impact on cultural adaptations.  For instance, Samuel Vaneeckhout, Jari Okkonen and Andre Costopoulos argue that between 6500 and 4000 years ago postglacial land uplift in northwest coastal Finland reduced the distance between the rivers flowing into the Bothnian Bay, which triggered increased population densities and sedentism among hunter-gatherers living on the coast.  It would be very difficult to examine Finnish heritage and culture and not acknowledge the profound power of nature on Finnish life.  The 1888 John Martin Crawford preface to The Kalevela poetically described the Finns as “a people who live pre-eminently close to nature, and are at home amongst the animals of the wilderness, beasts and birds, winds, and woods, and waters, falling snows, and flying sands, and rolling rocks.”

While a good scholar would consider the full breadth of Finnish environmental conditions—the extended grey rainy Fall, the legion of little lakes and river basins dotting the country, the unyielding summer sunlight, the monochromatic and seemingly infinite flat forest—most of the contemplation of the Finnish environment revolves around cold and snow.  At a latitude of 65 degrees north (Indianapolis is 39.7, Quebec City is 46.8, Rovaniemi is 66.5), Oulu has long winters with a mean temperature in the coldest months of no more than -3C (26.6F), and Atlantic Ocean currents make the far northern climate about 10 degrees C higher than in comparable latitudes in Siberia.  The winter malaise induced by the cold can be compounded by extended darkness in northernmost Finland, where the sun does not rise for 51 days.  In the midst of long nights and cities blanketed in snow, all of the senses are challenged: sounds are distinctively muffled into the snow blanket, colors wash out in the dim reflection of snow, and smells do not seem to drift far from their origins.  All of these factors together can shock even Finns: for instance, a Finn returning to the country after a long-term assignment in Australia admitted that “I felt like an alien in my own country. Surprisingly, I was totally unprepared for the long, harsh, cold, dark Arctic winter.”

Of course there are seasons besides winter in Finland (image from East Uusimaa courtesy Visit Finland).

We might circumspectly ask why people choose to live in such conditions, how it shapes Finnish culture and life, and, in the words of the BBC Travel page, “The obvious question in all this is: what makes Finland – with its near constant cold and long stretches of darkness – such a happy place to live?”  This raises the thorny ontological issue of what constitutes happiness, but by many relatively concrete measures Finland has virtues.  The Nordic countries are routinely placed at the top of lists of “happiest” or even “best” countries in the world, with a 2010 list placing Finland first overall (first in education, fourth in quality of life, fifth in political environment, eighth in economic dynamism, and 17th in health; the US was 11th overall, compare Stephen Colbert’s coverage, which sarcastically but presciently may capture Americans’ amazement).  The environmental realities are pretty objective, yet arrayed against them is the seemingly contradictory mountain of evidence underscoring that Finland is a well-managed state peopled by relatively happy citizens.  In a flood of optimistic data on Finland, the Finns in 2012 have the world’s most press freedom; the world’s best science scores in 2006 (second in reading and second in math); the seventh highest prosperity in 2011 (down from first in 2009); the world’s strongest property rights in 2008;  government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is higher in Finland than any other country in the world, and Finland has the world’s second highest participation in higher education;  and the school system is routinely lauded as one of the world’s finest.  All this made Finland the world’s second happiest country in 2010 (only Denmark was considered happier).

Finnish winter is a complicated interplay of light, snow, and cold (image courtesy speedwaystar).

One explanation for Finns’ seeming “happiness” is that it is explained by the cold and not in spite of it.  For instance, Finns are astoundingly active despite the challenges of the cold, with scores of residents Nordic walking, hiking, riding bikes, jogging through the depths of winter.  That activity may actually be because of those conditions: in bracing cold, moving can be enormously better than simply standing motionless waiting for a bus.  The vaunted school system may have some link to the cold as well: sitting in a well-warmed classroom on a brutally cold albeit gorgeous snowy day does make white collar work and scholarly labor seem more appealing than physical labor.  Regardless of the often unpleasant physical sensation of being in the cold, it is aesthetically pleasing, and Finnish tourist pages devote much of their energy to illuminating the pleasing aesthetics of the Finnish snowfall, northern lights, frosty reindeer, and dew-covered berries.  Flickr is loaded with countless images of Finnish nature, and many appear to be taken by Americans captivated by this environmental aesthetics and the momentary simplicity of living within and not against nature (at least for the week an American urbanite is vacationing in Finland).

Finland actually has some seasons and color besides winter and white (image courtesy -zelig-)

Yet much of the American fascination with such world rankings of countries and our obsession on where we sit on such inventories of joy may reside with our own commitment to happiness.  The Daily Beast and Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss each hypothesize that the chill and dark may have a significant influence on Finland’s happiness, but it may also lie in how Americans define happiness, which goes well beyond the measured contentment Finns find in everyday life.  Americans arrogantly wrote the “pursuit of happiness” into our founding document despite subsequently assembling a diverse and unequal state society covering numerous environmental zones.  Weiner questions why Americans consciously commit so much energy to actually thinking about securing happiness:  “I’ve spent most of my life trying to think my way to happiness, and my failure to achieve that goal only proves, in my mind, that I am not a good enough thinker. It never occurred to me that the source of my unhappiness is not flawed thinking but thinking itself.”  This suggests that much of outsiders’ inability to understand Finnish contentment—or secure their own–may revolve around our inability to understand some people seek meaningfulness that may not necessarily be “happy” in a hackneyed American definition of the term.  What it means to be happy or content is inevitably local and highly contextual and certainly culturally specific, and there is certainly a link between the unavoidable Nordic environment and Finnish cultural definitions of contentment, but the relationship between happiness and culture in Finland and America reaches well beyond the mercury and depth of snow each winter.

Reindeer are sufficiently supportive of the Finnish economy to make regular appearances for winter tourists (image courtesy solitaryleprechaun).

Finns do in fact spend much of their time cautioning visitors that winter will be a six-month experience, but they seem to have a certain shared sobriety about the realities of the weather and simply do not commit much of their thought to it except when addressing a visitor.   Americans, in contrast, always imagine new possibilities, which can often be our greatest quality but also tends to make us unsettled with what we have in hand: for every American who celebrates the Lapland wilderness, another wonders how we might turn it into a more profitable and easily accessible space with creature comforts.  This restless imagination of Americans was recognized in 1835 by Alexis de Toqueville, who noted in the classic Democracy in America that “At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. … The recollection of the brevity of life is a constant spur to him.  Besides the good things which he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others which death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode. … It may readily be conceived that if men, passionately bent upon physical gratifications, desire eagerly, they are also easily discouraged: as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach that object must be prompt and easy, or the trouble of acquiring the gratification would be greater than the gratification itself. Their prevailing frame of mind then is at once ardent and relaxed, violent and enervated.”

Charles O. Frake

1962 Cultural Ecology and EthnographyAmerican Anthropologist 64(1):53-59. (subscription access)

Hal B. Gregersen and Linda K. Stroh

1997 Coming Home to the Arctic Cold: Antecedents to Finnish Expatriate and Spouse Repatriation AdjustmentPersonnel Psychology 50: 635–654. (subscription access)

Karoliina Periäinen

2006 The summer cottage : a dream in the Finnish forest.  In Multiple dwelling and tourism: Negotiating place, home and identity, eds. McIntyre, N., Williams, D., & McHugh, K. pp.103-114.  Cambridge, MA.

Alexis de Tocqueville

1838 Democracy in America.  Translated by Henry Reeve, George Deerborn and Son, New York.

Samuel Vaneeckhout, Jari Okkonen, Andre Costopoulos

2012 Paleoshorelines and prehistory on the eastern Bothnian Bay coast (Finland): local environmental variability as a trigger for social changePolar Geography 35(1):51-63. (subscription access)

Oulanka National Park image courtesy purplespace

Winter image courtesy Markus YK

Cycling image courtesy Visit Finland

Reindeer image courtesy solitaryleprechaun

Finnish countryside image courtesy -zelig-

Street scene image courtesy speedwaystar