Stockholm University: The Impact of Cultural Projections from Outside Perspectives

On Wednesday June 3rd, we had the opportunity to meet with Professor Jacob Östberg, PhD, at Stockholm University, Stockholm’s first modern university to cut religious connections to education. As far as business schools go, Stockholm business school studies business from a social science perspective and focuses more on the societal role that companies play in society. University is free of charge for Swedes and students from the EU. Exchange students pay a fee, even though the institution is technically not there to make a profit, but rather uses funds to cover their costs. Part of the undergraduate bachelor’s degree courses are taught in English and all master programs are taught in English.

Something interesting that Professor Östberg shared was that while Denmark and Sweden are neighboring Scandinavian countries, there are stark differences between Danish and Swedish people. For instance, in Sweden political correctness is good and Swedes believe that words have consequences. Danes may interpret political correctness as false/fake and believe in saying things bluntly, even if what is said makes people cry, but a Dane would appreciate that at least what is being said is real.

One important takeaway from this lecture was the projection that people place on other cultures. For instance, in Sweden it is important to be politically correct. However, while there are only roughly 800 Mexicans living in Sweden, since Swedes watch so much American television that they feel like there is more of a Mexican presence and Swedes love what they think is Mexico, including blonde women in sombreros wearing fake mustaches and shooting guns—something that can be incredibly offensive.

During this lecture, many of us were surprised to learn of the “Swedish sin” or projections American culture placed on Sweden around the 1960’s. This was due partly to Sweden being a more secular country and not having particularly strong religious beliefs. For instance, nudity is not bad, and the idea of premarital sex was not as shocking as in other places around the world. Sweden began putting out films for teenagers who had questions about sex, which included nudity—not porn, but instructional videos that became big internationally and spread in porn theaters in New York. Milwaukee Brewing Company leveraged the mythologies of Sweden in their advertising by coming up with the idea of the Swedish bikini team to sell beer. To further align with fantasies people have of what they believe happened in Sweden, rumors started about how the team was chosen. People in America believed the king of Sweden personally chose the team, when in reality people in Sweden most likely had no idea of the American-imposed “Swedish” bikini team.

Another concept that we found interesting was that many Swedes consider it “uncool” to be “just” Swedish and feel the need to make “make it” on a global level. One example Professor Östberg gave is Swedish musical artists speaking English in interviews so they can be found elsewhere and pass for being from the U.K. or U.S. Another example is a Swedish company, Lexington, that Swedes think is very cool and may be offended to be told it’s a Swedish Company arguing that it is American due to it being of true American style. Acne is another fashion company that works to not be reduced to be a Swedish brand, for instance would opt to host a fashion show in Paris or London, versus Stockholm.

One last interesting impression left on us is how Sweden measures respect for companies. Many view Sweden as the woke capital of the world, where political correctness is valued. Twenty years ago, Holt predicted that a brand’s authenticity would be increasingly judged from its contribution as a cultural resource. For instance, Björn is respected in Sweden for their willingness to stick their neck out in Russia by running an ad with rainbow-colored towels in support of the LGBTQ+ community in a place that is highly opposed to gay rights. IKEA, on the other hand, tailors their ads in support of the nation their in. For instance, IKEA incorporates gay couples in their Swedish ads, took women out of their ads in Saudi Arabia, and took gay couples out for their ads in Russia. IKEA received backlash for this for not being authentic across the board. A big final takeaway from this visit is that companies have long-term consequences for the media they create.