A new government-backed international campaign to encourage travel to Italy has been making waves and facing backlash since it was first announced by ENIT, the Italian National Tourist Board, on April 21.
Titled “Open to Meraviglia” (“Open to Wonder”) and backed by the Ministry of Tourism, the glossy campaign clumsily reimagines Botticelli’s Venus as a 21st-century “virtual influencer” (with the real-life Instagram username @venereitalia23). Campaign stills and videos feature the Roman goddess wearing contemporary clothing and posing in various iconic Italian locations as she takes selfies and eats pizza. At the time of writing, Venus is making her “offline” debut at ATM Dubai (Arabian Travel Market).
While many of Open to Meraviglia’s critics have focused on the abundance of Italian clichés they say the €9 million campaign employs, others have been more forgiving of its content, yet found problems with the execution. Tuscany-based marketing professionals Gaia Provvedi and Filippo Giustini were two high-profile people in the second group.
Provvedi and Giustini, eager to learn more about the campaign after its launch, noticed within minutes that the web domain OpentoMeraviglia.it not only featured no active site or redirect, but had been left unregistered altogether. They quickly snatched it up for just under €5 and redirected it to the homepage of their agency, Marketing Toys.
Italian media promptly caught wind of the move, with many outlets portraying Provvedi and Giustini as marketing “hot shots” bent on teaching a lesson. Italy Magazine found when we reached out to the duo that their motives were more protective than punitive. Below, Provvedi shares snippets from Marketing Toys’ week in the headlines, her take on the current state of Italian tourism marketing, and predictions for what may come of their clever move.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Toni DeBella: Tell us about the moment you realized the OpentoMeraviglia.it domain was still unregistered. Set the scene: Where were you, what’d you do and how were you able to act so fast?
Gaia Provvedi: We were on vacation in Paris, and on Friday [April 21] we were following the discussions on social media about the campaign presentation. We’re used to checking social media every day, so it was impossible not to notice it.
That evening, while we were waiting for a Ryan Adams concert to start at the Le Trianon theater, we looked for information straight from the source. We were wondering what the campaign strategy was, looking for answers. It was only natural for us to type in www dot opentomeraviglia dot it. We realized that not only was there no website or redirect set up, but the domain itself was free. So the obvious next step was for us to register the domain and redirect it to the Marketing Toys homepage — also because we didn't have the time and tools to do anything else. We registered it in our name in part to protect it; it could have been registered by anyone and we all know the potential consequences of that.
Anyway, Ryan Adams’ show was fantastic.
The next morning, as soon as he woke up, Filippo noticed an unusual number of visits to the site. During breakfast, we created a page explaining what had happened, while realizing that news had been circulating about another person who had claimed to have registered the domain to redirect it to a specific category on PornHub.
From that point on, we began to understand what was happening, and that our action was attracting the attention of journalists who were commenting on the Botticelli Venus campaign. The first journalist from Repubblica contacted us immediately for an initial interview and from that point on, it was a crescendo, leading us to appear in many national newspapers, on radio stations and major news websites.
We want to reiterate that from the beginning, we thought of giving it for free to the [tourism] ministry, along with the trademark we registered — to ensure protection of the campaign.
TD: What do you think of ENIT’s €9 million advertising campaign?
GP: On the topic of the campaign budget, we’ve read and heard all sorts of things, often from people who have no idea how figures are calculated for these kinds of international campaigns.
Just from reading the official press releases, it’s clear that the total cost includes the production and distribution of the promotional video — which will also be shown aboard certain airlines — along with billboards and cross-media campaigns that will drive traffic to Italia.it through a QR code. Only about €138,000 would have been paid to Armando Testa [the marketing and communications group that conceived much of the campaign].
Given that plans are in place for the campaign to promote Italy as a destination worldwide — both online and offline — it's not an excessive amount when considering the reach that it will have and in how many countries it will appear. We’re definitely missing key pieces of information that would help us more thoroughly evaluate things — pieces such as target coverage, frequency and duration, and specific media channels of the advertising plan.
TD: What has it been like to have your company’s name on everyone’s lips and plastered all over the press? Can you share with us some of the feedback or the contact form responses you’ve gotten so far?
GP: Certainly, it was an unexpected situation that we had to manage quickly in the best way possible. So we set ourselves up for success on multiple fronts, with colleagues and partners who supported us on the legal front and in the management of our press office while we were still in Paris. We didn't even have a computer with us to work! We were on vacation!
We spent the hours that followed with our phones in our hands, responding to comments, reading compliments and critiques, amazed at how many online news outlets were talking about us. Every time we found an article that mentioned us, we’d look at each other and smile, resisting the urge to intervene when certain facts were left unchecked. Two very special days, really: I will always remember walking on the Champs-Élysées while Filippo was being phone-interviewed by an ANSA journalist. Or doing a live broadcast on national radio from our apartment in Paris.
We tried to behave as if one of our clients was the star of the story. Being the protagonists of an event of this magnitude also gave us firsthand experience with information overload, and the weight of criticism and bad information. I believe that our character and our desire to do our best helped us a lot; we experienced it for what we are as people and professionals. And, fortunately, in complete harmony!
Below is some of the beautiful feedback we’ve received from the contact form on the site [which solicits ideas for how to best put the domain to use, and proposes donating it to the Ministry of Tourism as an option].
“It's great how it's been used, and honestly, I wouldn't give it to the Ministry, not for profit. I'd give it in exchange for a social intervention. Because if you hadn't acquired this domain, it would have been exploited for its eventual sale to the Ministry (I would have sold it myself because I wouldn't have been able to think and act like you).”
“Give space to creators and ordinary people to showcase the beauty of Italy. You could use it to collect videos of ordinary people to create a commercial produced with those videos to tell a more true and authentic Italy than the one told by our government with stock videos.”
“Hi guys, you're wonderful. I just discovered you and already like you. Why don't you create something countercultural with the current campaign, perhaps talking about the true wonder, with a polemical and irreverent tone, maybe even dismantling the stereotype of the "classic vacation" in Italy and showing a bit of the "real" Italy, with its quirks and subcultures, which make it truly beautiful and authentic?”
“I would love it if you made your own version of promoting Italy, instead of the horrible one we saw. With a little effort — I really have no doubt that you're capable of doing better! — you could show them how to make a great campaign. I would include the cost you would have charged to make it, which I imagine is much lower than that of Armando Testa. In short, another way to make yourselves known not only for your wit, but also concretely for your skills. Thank you."
TD: Do you think the negative responses to this campaign will have any noticeable effects on how Italian tourism is marketed in the future?
GP: We believe it’s too early to make any conclusions, especially because the campaign is supposed to impact a sector where the numbers probably won’t be analyzed before the end of 2023. Certainly, it would be useful to better define the specific objectives of this campaign, such as the target, since the statements talk vaguely about “young people.” We don’t have information about the strategic positioning that Italy will have as a destination in the next five to ten years, and what role, if any, this and other campaigns will play in that. We do hope that Italy remains one of the most sought-after destinations for international tourism because it’s truly a wonderful country!
TD: How do you think the state of the Italian marketing sector might shift after the dust settles from this campaign?
GP: “Marketing is serious stuff.” This is our agency’s slogan. We believe that it is necessary to practice marketing with greater responsibility at all levels in order to make a real contribution to companies, markets and consumers.
We hope that this “moment” will make colleagues and operators reflect on what happened and on how, up to now, our profession has been managed and practiced. We have been committed to [building an] entrepreneurial, strategic and communicative culture for years by helping people on a natural path of growth that’s rooted in awareness and responsibility.
TD: And lastly, would you like to tell us a bit about what’s next for you and your colleagues at Marketing Toys?
GP: The first thought we had when returning from Paris was “we have to start a vegetable garden!” It's not a joke, either; for more than 15 years we’ve been working remotely from a converted farmhouse cellar against the green backdrop of Tuscany. We believe in work-life balance and in respectful work environments. We are a dynamic agency that works on projects in different sectors: tourism, B2B, e-commerce and even space!
Regarding the domain itself, as we’ve already said, we’ll donate it to the Ministry of Tourism if they wish to use it for the campaign. If they don’t end up asking for it, we’re thinking of using it for Italian tourism marketing, and are collecting ideas and proposals. The contact form is still active!
We’re sure this wave of visibility will help us raise awareness on the way we work and will allow us to cross paths with new people — customers and collaborators with whom we can create exciting projects.