Brazil received a huge boost in its international image with its selection as the host of the 2016 Olympics, but it was really just the cherry on top of the overall recognition of the country's ascension to the ranks of one of the world's most important countries. Now, as it finally takes its place on the world scene, there has been a great deal of concern about what kind of image Brazil hopes to project, now that the world is really paying attention.
There are signs of positive change. The Economist featured Brazil in a special edition, lauding the country for its economic, political, and social progress and essentially deeming it a country to be taken seriously, the "country of the future" that has finally arrived. Though the set of articles did mention some of Brazil's challenges, it mostly focused on its successes, specifically in finance, investment, banking, and other macroeconomic areas. The international media has given its blessing to Brazil, advertising progress made in diplomacy, governance, and the economy.
But there's a lot more to the big picture. Even though Brazil has been very successful fighting poverty, it still has a long way to go; it moved up but is still only 75th on the Human Development Index ranking, falling behind Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Cuba and even Venezuela. Despite the fact that international businesses are now salivating over Brazilian consumers, who are buying all sorts of products at unprecedented rates due to rising salaries and access to credit, they seem to be echoing American consumers before the crisis. Since they can buy expensive items like TVs and cars by paying in installments, consumer debt is high; a recent study showed that 64% of consumers plan to use year-end bonuses to pay off debt. And all you have to do is take a ride around any big city in Brazil to see how poverty still holds an iron grip on major metropolitan areas.
Still, these issues are clearly areas where Brazil is making great progress. One hurdle Brazil is having trouble with is its image abroad. While the US incredibly became to the world's most admired country after the 2008 elections, Brazil stayed at #20 and scored highest in the area of culture. The truth of the matter is that most non-Brazilians view the country as an eternal party and not necessarily as a "serious" country. Tourists flock to its seaside cities for the beach and expectations of experiencing Carnival, whether or not it's the actual holiday. Rio de Janeiro is largely what outsiders expect of the entire country (that, or a jungle) and have very ingrained stereotypes about Brazil's party reputation. That's the only reason I can imagine that Rio was elected the world's best gay destination, since my experience was that Buenos Aires catered much better to gays. In Rio, there are only a handful of gay clubs (at least, that the general public knows about), and a section of Ipanema known for its gay beachgoers. I can only imagine its reputation for constant partying could be the answer.
Brazil is hoping to change its image by the time the Olympics roll around, to prove that it is in fact a serious country. Image branding experts say Brazil has an enormous opportunity to change its image during the Games, rather than using tired cliches that outsiders will recognize. However, I think it will be pretty difficult for Brazil to use an event like an Olympics to do this, other than pulling the event off without major problems. The entire point of an event like this is to showcase the country's culture and people, not its banks or institutions. I can hardly imagine an opening ceremony with twirling dancers in miner or factory uniforms; you can bet there will be lots of samba and Carnival regalia.
To boot, Brazil also struggles with another stereotype: beautiful, easy women. This was abundantly clear when P. Diddy, recently vacationing in Rio, called Brazil "a tsunami of asses." A few nights ago, Robin Williams joked on David Letterman that Rio won the Olympics by sending "strippers and blow" to the Olympics committee. Too often, the whole country is branded as a place where you go for sex and to meet women, rather than, say, a place to invest or start a business.
The Olympics is not the wisest venue for Brazil to reshape its image, since it's much easier to showcase its vibrant culture and huge pool of talented athletes than its social progress or big businesses. Instead, it has seven years to keep doing what it's doing, to improve governance and fight corruption, continue with economic stability and successful businesses, and an even better mission of diplomacy. A truly sterling reputation is gained with time and success, not by a single event.