There are some things that Europeans will never understand about America, such as its obsession with the Kardashians, just as Americans will never understand Europe’s obsession with the Eurovision Song Contest. Before I moved to Europe, I only knew a few things about Eurovision: each year, vocalists representing their countries sing bombastic songs on the international stage, and after several rounds of voting, a winner is declared that inevitably creates controversy.

Now that I have lived in Europe for over a year, here’s what I know about Eurovision: each year, vocalists representing their countries sing bombastic songs on the international stage, and after several rounds of voting, a winner is declared that inevitably creates controversy. This year, the competition was won by an Israeli woman in a kimono who sang a women’s empowerment anthem while clucking like a chicken. It was surprisingly catchy!

But Eurovision does not fascinate me because of the music; it fascinates me because of the sheer amount of data it generates about international relations. In fact, I have spent dozens of hours poring over the data generated by the competition but have spent less than two hours of my life watching performances from the actual show. So, I do not use the show for entertainment purposes; rather, a nation’s voting patterns reveal its average citizen’s real-time sentiments toward other countries, and this information is immensely valuable for international business. After all, there is always a lot of data behind any international expansion decision. But finding the data is not the hard part, the hard part is finding relevant and up-to-date data trends for your business. So, although many can dismiss Eurovision as a silly spectacle, its resulting data can reveal vital information about things like biases among countries and unofficial international alliances and boycotts that can affect a business’s bottom line.

The data proves that countries ‘cheat’ in Eurovision

I digress, it may be impossible to cheat a democratic and subjective vote, but the Journal of Artificial Society and Social Simulation recently published an article that shows the collusive voting partnerships among countries over the last few decades.  The authors define collusion as when ‘countries systematically award each other larger than expected scores over the years to provide an advantage in the competition’ and can be ‘a display of political/cultural affiliation’. Put simply, collusion is when a country votes for a friendly country’s song, no matter – or even in spite of – the song’s quality.

Publications like The Economist took hold of this article and highlighted some of its noted trends. The first significant trend is that countries tend to vote together based upon geographical proximity. That is, countries are more likely to vote for their neighbours than for faraway lands. For example, Nordic countries tend to vote for one another, so the data shows a consistent, strong relationship among Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Likewise, former members of the Soviet Union tend to vote for one another. These alliances are not inconsequential: these two groups have shared 12 of the last 20 titles.

The second major – and related – trend is the rise of the aforementioned collusion. Though Eurovision did not start out that way, it has grown increasingly collusive over the years. When the competition started over six decades ago, there was ten times less collusion than there is nowadays. The Economist does not wade too far into this topic, but part of the explanation for this collusion may be the increase in the size of the competitor pool. Currently, countries such as Israel and Australia can compete in the competition. Moreover, with the addition of more Eastern and Southern European countries, the competition’s centre of gravity has drifted away from Western Europe and Northern Europe. These factors could be encouraging an ‘us versus them’ mentality, resulting in favouritism for allied countries. Additionally, since this collusion has been occurring for some time among specific groups (Nordic countries, Ireland-Britain, post-Soviet nations, etc.), it may subconsciously encourage others to band together to maintain relevance. The following list demonstrates some of the most common collusive relationships over the past four decades:

  • The Nordic states (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland)
  • Ireland and the United Kingdom
  • DACH countries (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland)
  • The Netherlands and Belgium
  • The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania)
  • Post-Soviet States (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova)
  • Romania and Moldova
  • Greece and Cyprus
  • The former Yugoslav countries (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina,  Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Croatia)

How predictive was the data for the 2018 competition?

Because The Economist’s article and the Journal article were published before the 2018 competition, we have a chance to examine how the collusion trends held up this year. To understand the collusion, one must first understand the voting system. For the uninitiated, each country has 116 total points to give to other countries. Half of these points come from jury votes (the jury is comprised of appointed ‘experts’ from the country that are putatively more objective), and the other half come from telephone votes (citizens of a particular country can call in and vote for their favourite). For obvious reasons, the telephone votes are especially valuable for market research purposes.

Conclusion 1: Nordic Countries colluded

Although Sweden (7th), Denmark (9th), Norway (15th), Finland (25th), and Iceland (did not qualify for the finals) did not fare so well in this year’s competition, they indeed fared well among their Nordic neighbours. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all appeared in each other’s Top 5 for outgoing points. That is, when a Nordic country sent points to other countries, their fellow Nordic countries were among the top point-getters. Again, maybe this is not outright cheating, but these countries happen to have strikingly similar tastes in music.

Conclusion 2: Post-Soviet collusion wasn’t a factor this year

Somewhat surprisingly, post-Soviet collusion was mostly a non-issue this year, mainly because many members of traditional voting blocs either did not enter the competition (Serbia) or did not qualify for the finals (Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia). Ukraine still received significant points from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia, but because Ukraine could not vote for these countries due to their inability to qualify for the finals, we were not able to see if Ukraine would have reciprocated as per tradition. Therefore, we could not see much evidence of this traditional collusion in 2018.

Conclusion 3: UK-Ireland is going strong despite Brexit

The UK and Ireland held up their alliance. Ireland received more points from the UK than it received from all but two other countries. Similarly, the UK received more points from Ireland than it received from any other country. Most tellingly, the vast majority of these points came from telephone voting, meaning it was the people of Ireland and the UK chose to uphold their alliance, not their professional (and supposedly more objective) representatives.

Other Collusions:

– Although Greece did not qualify for the finals, it still gave Cyprus the maximum possible points one country can give to another (24). This allocation falls in line with their traditional alliance, but this year, Cyprus seems to have deserved it based upon the quality of its song.

– Finland and Estonia always vote strongly for one another, even though this mutual adoration is not large enough to constitute a bloc. In fact, Finland received more than a quarter of its points this year from Estonia.

– Romania did not qualify for the finals, but it did send more points to Moldova than any other country, thereby holding up its end of the unofficial alliance.

Overall, the Journal article was quite predictive of collusive voting relationships. Unless a relationship was stymied by a country’s failure to qualify for the finals, countries continued their long-term collusions in almost all of the cases that the article mentioned. But this data is not just useful for predicting future competitions, it can be used for far more important analyses.

Using ‘silly’ data for important purposes: Turkish Immigration and Assimilation

No matter how one feels about immigration, everybody can admit that it affects most aspects of modern European life, including Eurovision voting. Turkish immigrants are Germany’s second largest immigrant group. It is estimated that there at least 4 million people with ull or partial Turkish origin living in Germany, which equates to about 5% of Germany’s total population (some feel that these estimates are low). Importantly, the Turkish community in Germany is not considered to be well-integrated by objective assimilation standards, meaning they live in a parallel society. They are people have their own religion, language, food, cultural more, and, as it turns out, their own Eurovision voting habits. Though Turkey has not participated since 2012, when Turkey did participate, Germany showed an irrational loyalty to Turkey vis-à-vis Eurovision voting: Germany always votes for Turkey, but Turkey does not show Germany the same affection. The same phenomenon occurs in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands; these countries vote for Turkey, but Turkey does not reciprocate.

There are a few simple explanations for this recurring phenomenon. One is that Turkish minorities in Germany, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands vote overwhelmingly for Turkey. Another explanation is that because these European nations have gained a better cultural appreciation for Turkey, their general populations reward Turkey with votes. Both may be true, though the former seems more likely. No matter the real conclusion, further splicing of Eurovision voting data by ethnicity could reveal a lot about a migrant population’s level of integration into another country’s society. It is not too farfetched to assume that heavy voting for one’s mother country instead of a new country’s traditional voting ‘allies’ show a lack of true integration into a country’s society. Conversely, voting for one’s new country’s traditional allies instead of one’s mother country could be a sign of strong societal integration.

Therefore, data from this ‘silly’ competition could provide valuable insight into the status of a long-term immigrant diaspora.

Eurovision products & boycotts

Every Eurovision song is a national product. Each country has an internal process to select their nation’s song, during which they always consider how well that song represents their country and how well that song will perform internationally. So, 30+ countries perform broad, international market analyses, and then they simultaneously release their products to the Eurovision market. Whether a product succeeds or fails upon expansion to a new region can hinge on a surprisingly small list of factors. One such factor success is the country’s reputation for excellence for a given product (Italian leather, Swiss watches, Belgian chocolate, etc.). And as with any product, politics can come in and completely warp the consumer’s decision.

Before this year’s competition, many Israelis feared that the ‘cultural boycott’ against Israel would extend all the way to the Eurovision contest. According to one boycott website, Israel ‘uses culture as a form of propaganda to whitewash or justify its regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people’, so they encourage everybody to ‘boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions’. I know enough about the Israel-Palestine conflict to know that I should stick to the most objective facts while writing about it. It is important to know that this boycott has caused many famous artists to cancel performances in Israel, so it has been somewhat effective internationally. Shortly before the competition, there were violent clashes between Palestine and Israeli; at least 60 people died, and hundreds were injured. Thus, the Israel-Palestine conflict was back in the international spotlight right at the time of this year’s competition, which did not bode well for the Israeli performer.

Because Israel’s Netta Barzilai won the competition, we can safely conclude that the boycott and the international uproar about the violent clashes were not yet strong enough to affect 2018’s competition. Better said, Europe’s general population did not care enough about this particular Israel-Palestine clash for it to affect their voting at that time. This is an interesting data point, but it does not give me enough confidence to conclude that the conflict has had no impact on European attitudes toward Israeli business. Instead, all I can say is that the boycott was not strong enough yet, but next year will probably be very different because the most important part of the controversy is yet to come.

Winners of the Eurovision competition always host the competition the following year, so the 2019 Eurovision Competition will take place in Jerusalem, Israel’s controversial capital. Therefore, the boycott has one full year to pick up steam. While a single performer from Israeli is probably not enough to warrant a full-scale attack, the hosting of an international competition certainly is. As such, there are already internal movements in various countries to boycott the entire competition. Moreover, the boycott will have significantly more newsworthy moments in the coming year, meaning it will probably pick up a lot of steam. Therefore, the 2019 competition and the events leading up to it will provide a sort of a European layman’s referendum on Israel, which will likely have significant business implications. There is one thing that is absolutely sure: I will have a lot of data to analyse by the time next year’s song contest rolls around, and it might have serious consequences for any company with significant ties to Israel.

Conclusion: Embrace Unorthodox Data

If you are a business owner that is considering expanding to a new market, you will likely spend a good chunk of change on the market research. As we have seen, a product’s success in each market is based upon many things, but much of the success rate has to do with national alliances and local tastes. Sometimes the analysis is even simpler: how much consumers in the target country like your product’s country of origin. Eurovision voting data – especially the telephone data – can provide this data on a country-to-country level. Every year, roughly 200 million people watch the same spectacle, and millions of those people vote based at least in part on their preconceptions. Essentially, Eurovision data allows us to check the present pulse of Europe’s international biases; business leaders must embrace this kind of invaluable data, even if the source is unorthodox.