In 2012, VisitSweden launched a unique tourism campaign online. It handed off the country's official Twitter handle, @Sweden, to ordinary Swedes—and let them post more or less whatever they liked. Very quickly there were problems with provocative posts, but the country—convinced that transparency had more upsides than downsides—stuck with the "Curators of Sweden" program, and it continues today. (It was also widely celebrated in the ad industry, winning the Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes in 2012 for agency Volontaire.)
Now, a similar campaign aims to translate that same kind of experience to the telephone.
Sweden just became the first country in the world with its very own telephone number. "The Swedish Number," which you can call at +46 771 793 336, connects callers from around the world with random Swedes who have signed up to be de facto ambassadors—but who've received no training whatsoever, and have been given no instructions about what to say (or perhaps more to the point, what not to say).
The campaign was dreamed up by Ingo Stockholm, a WPP agency, for the Swedish Tourist Association—a different group than VisitSweden. The point is to offer a completely unfiltered view of Swedish life—regardless of the obvious risks of doing so. (The campaign also marks the 250th anniversary of the abolishment of censorship in Sweden.)
"In troubled times, many countries try to limit communication between people, but we want to do just the opposite," Magnus Ling, general secretary and CEO of the Swedish Tourist Association, said in a statement. "We are making Sweden the first country in the world with its own phone number and giving our fellow Swedes the opportunity to answer the calls, express themselves and share their views, whatever they might be."
The point, Ling added, is "to show the real Sweden—a unique country worth visiting with the right of public access, sustainable tourism and a rich cultural heritage. With 'The Swedish Number,' our goal is to create more pride and knowledge about Sweden, both nationally and internationally."
Here is a short video about the program:
Swedes can sign up online to take part in the campaign. A switchboard supports incoming calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The switchboard then randomly chooses one of the Swedish ambassadors to take each call.
Naturally, we had to try it. Here's what happened when we called early Thursday:
Tim Nudd: Hi, is this Sweden?
It is Sweden, indeed.
Hi, this is America calling.
Hey. Great! Where are you calling from in the States?
I'm in New York City at the moment.
Yeah. Where are you?
I'm in Stockholm, the capital.
Oh, nice. Well, I just wanted to call and see how this whole thing works.
OK. Yeah, me too. I just signed up online to receive these calls. Is this the first time you've called?
It is the first time. How many calls have you gotten?
I signed up yesterday, and I got three calls. And then I turned it off for a while. Then I turned it back on about an hour ago, and you're the first to call since then.
I see, OK.
How did you find out about it?
Well, I actually write for a marketing magazine, and the ad agency that came up with this idea sent me an email. So, I thought I'd try it.
Ah, OK. Which ad agency is that?
They're called Ingo. They're in Stockholm, also.
OK, I see. That's cool.
So, how did the three phone calls go yesterday?
So, there was one from Turkey from a woman who didn't speak too much English. So, that was a fairly brief conversation. It was cut off. I don't know whether she hung up, or what happened. Then there was a guy from Britain. An engineer from Britain. And we had a long chat for about 10 minutes. He just asked about what life is like in Sweden, etc. And the third caller just hung up. So, I think there are a lot of people, like you, they just call to see if this actually works. So, for full disclosure, I should let you know that I'm a reporter for the Associated Press, the news agency. And I'm writing a story about this. I just signed up for the service to see how it works, and how many calls I would receive. Just to really understand how they set it up.
[Laughs] Right, OK. So, this is supposed to be a tourism campaign, and we have one journalist calling another journalist.
[Laughs] Yeah, I'm not sure that's what they intended! Which magazine do you work for?
I'm with Adweek.
Yeah, I'm writing a story this morning about this whole thing.
[Laughs] Oh, you are. That's hilarious.
So, did you get any training on what you're supposed to say?
No. And I mean, that's why I signed up. That's what I wanted to find out, right? And there's absolutely no vetting. I signed up online. All I had to do was enter my phone number. I had to download an app, enter my phone number. I got some kind of activation code as a text message to my phone. I had to enter that, and that was it. Nobody asked me any questions. I got no instructions what to say. I actually asked them about that, too. "How do you know that people won't, you know, be saying things that you won't necessarily endorse as the official tourism agency for Sweden?" And they're like, "That's the point! We don't want to control the message! We're celebrating our press freedoms, etc."
They did a similar thing on Twitter.
Yes, they have the official Twitter account, that's right.
They let ordinary Swedes take over the Twitter account, and it got a little crazy, I understand.
Yeah, some of them have been a bit provocative.
I guess I should ask a question about what it's like to live in Sweden. So, what's it like to live in Sweden?
[Laughs] It's mostly good. It's a very pleasant place to live. Quality of life is high. It's a fairly safe and wealthy place, compared to many other countries. It's very cold, though. It's like living in … probably not quite as cold as Alaska, but one of the states bordering Canada. And the winters are dark. So, the cold and darkness, that's the big minus of living here. But otherwise it's great. I used to live in New York. Fifteen years ago now.
So, when's the best time to visit Sweden? In the summertime?
Yeah, definitely in the summertime. I would say, June or July. The only thing about July is, all Swedes go on vacation. So, if you come to Stockholm in July, the city is almost empty except for tourists. You can hardly find any Swedes on the street. And that is because it's the warmest month, and that's when you can expect the best weather.
Awesome, well, I'll try to get there eventually.
Yeah, you should!
How funny to run into you like this.
Yeah, that was fun. If you come to Sweden, look me up!
Note: Our Swedish friend turned out to be Karl Ritter, bureau chief of the AP in Stockholm. You can follow him on Twitter here.