The magic of beauty

At a time when beauty so often tips into fetish and may be considerably less than skin deep, it is worth remembering how genuine the human longing is for beauty.

And that being in the presence of beauty can be healing as well as restorative. A socially conditioned sense of aesthetics pushes what we respond to and how we see it.  But there are also experiences of beauty more powerful and universal than conditioning could ever be.  Those are the experiences that we respond to with heart, soul and spirit as well as mind. And that arouse our finest instincts as well as our emotions.

Everyday life offers us countless experiences of beauty. But to benefit from them, we have to be willing actually to notice the transient beauty of single flower, the promise of a crescent moon on a clear night, the shifting colours of grasses in the wind, the lift and rush of waves, a single green beetle moving slowly across dark earth. In poor countries that are rich spiritually, attention to beauty transforms daily living. Fresh flowers as a daily offering in front of a hovel, the bold colours of fabrics, simple food presented like a painting, candles creating drama as well as ritual: these small celebrations of beauty are often what strike tourists most forcibly. And what probably make a hard life meaningful as well as bearable.

Even the promise of beauty can be profoundly restorative.  And it may shape more of our decisions than we know.  As you read this, I am in 100% pure New Zealand.  You are probably in “So where the bloody hell are you?” Australia.  Unless, of course, you are fortunate enough to be in the “Swap the remote for the remote” Tasmania.

In the years since New Zealand came out as 100% pure, I have been in awe of the skill with which our smaller neighbour is selling itself to the world.  Distance, “naturalness”, a tiny population (and some of the most awesome landscapes in the world) have all become magnificent assets.  What is being offered and celebrated in these ads is not just physical beauty in its most spectacular and unspoiled forms but the inner magic such beauty works. That the reality of New Zealand is more complex than the advertising might suggest doesn’t dilute the power of what’s on offer.  Even more brilliantly, what might have seemed like disadvantages (especially remoteness) have been turned by this campaign into virtues to be trumpeted. The 100% promise clinches it.

The best marketing campaigns have always reflected an understanding that the emotions we associate with a product matter more than the product itself.  Marketing genius is all about tuning into the emotional zeitgeist, discovering what people most want and believe they lack – and identifying the product with that. The promise of beauty, and the comfort that beauty brings, can be nearly as powerful in a violent, rushed world as the experience of beauty itself.  All of which makes Australia’s recent choice of “So where the bloody hell are you?” look psychologically incompetent and bizarre.

Australia too is a country of great beauty. But its “story” doesn’t stop there. It is a country of dramatic extremes: the oldest extant world culture surviving alongside one of the newest and most diverse; the driest continent that also offers rivers, rainforests, lakes and mountains; the sporty nation that offers world-class culture; a place of fusion and of innovation.  But none of that or any other promise emerges with this slogan.  What we have is raw, aggressive and blokey, qualities already tediously overworked in the national marketing lexicon – and in plentiful supply on world markets.
For all their differences in skill, however, these campaigns do have something compelling in common.  Each sells the idea of “elsewhere”: that what we most want can best be found by leaving home. Yet the true promise of beauty is that every day offers opportunities to appreciate, celebrate and create it.  A dramatic experience can only enhance our awareness of what it is – and how genuinely we need it.

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