PHENOMENON: US sprinter Justin Gatlin (front left), together with marathon runners and performers dressed as terracotta soldiers, dances
PHENOMENON: US sprinter Justin Gatlin (front left), together with marathon runners and performers dressed as terracotta soldiers, dances "Gangnam Style" at the Xi'an City Wall International Marathon Competition in China last week. Picture: REUTERS

IF YOU haven’t heard of Gangnam Style, you’ve been living under a rock. Released by a South Korean pop star named Psy in July this year, the music video has now been viewed more than 474-million times and generated countless parodies and tributes.

It has been discussed everywhere from the Harvard Business Review to The New York Times, and it has become a phenomenon in South Africa too.

Fitness instructors are teaching the dance in gyms and it is getting air time at weddings, while Caspar Lee, the biggest South African internet sensation you’ve never heard of, discusses Gangnam Style with his young niece and nephew here in a video that has achieved more than 545,000 views to date.

Gloriously cheesy and catchy, Gangnam Style is the latest example of soft power from South Korea, a country that has long demonstrated how cultural carrots can be far more useful than big military sticks. Soft power is a concept first described by Joseph Nye in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. It’s the ability to co-opt and persuade without having to resort to threats of violence or payment — so-called "hard power".

Nye argues: "Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive."

The ubiquity of Coca-Cola and rock and roll were for decades as much a source of America’s power as guns and missiles. The Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe Institute are examples of soft power, as is China’s Confucius Institute. Hosting international events is also an important opportunity to position a nation in the eyes of the world, which is why cities and countries compete for the right to host them, expensive as they are.

There’s even a Soft Power Index, developed by the UK’s Institute for Government together with Monocle magazine. This looks at factors such as commercial brands, cultural output, cuisine, national airlines, international purpose and role and global leadership to rank 30 countries, from the US, UK and France at the top, down to the Czech Republic and Greece.

South Africa is not mentioned in the report, but Brazil and Turkey come in for particular praise: "Despite being very different countries, Turkey and Brazil offer a similar lesson for emerging powers looking to build their soft-power reserves: above all, generating soft power requires a balanced approach. This means investing in the infrastructure needed to reach larger international audiences, pursuing policies (domestic and foreign) that form a compelling international narrative, and taking a network-based approach to international action."

The argument about a compelling international narrative is an interesting one, given that post-1994, this was one of South Africa’s strong points. To what extent we can rely on the legacy of Nelson Mandela is open to debate in the wake of years of his less-than-inspiring successors.

What does South Africa have in its arsenal to counterbalance stories of violent strikes, endemic crime and corruption? Oscar Pistorius is probably our most compelling international brand right now, but we can also draw on the appeal of performers such as Trevor Noah and Die Antwoord, brands such as Appletiser and Nando’s and even wildlife videos on YouTube.

Then there’s also the aforementioned Caspar Lee himself. Most of his fans are British teenaged girls whom he has reached through clever cross-promotion with similarly Bieber-esque British YouTube stars. He discusses South African language and culture when he’s not talking about boy bands, and — interestingly — his accent is clearly one of the things that most fascinates his fans.

So a schoolboy uploading videos from his home in Knysna probably has a much greater impact on perceptions of South Africa among a particular demographic than more traditional sources of news and information. Psy and Lee are in their own way a reminder of the power of creativity, not just to entertain or generate revenue, but also to have a much wider effect on perceptions of a country, with knock-on effects that may only be measurable years from now.

Investment in creativity isn’t just a matter of being seen to do the right thing. It’s deeply pragmatic, too.