Filing personal tax returns, with the power of Spotify
Matti Eräsaari, University of Helsinki
Anna-Riikka Kauppinen, University of Cambridge
In May 2020, ahead of the deadline for filing personal tax returns, the Finnish Tax Administration shared a Spotify playlist called ‘Final Countdown’. Featuring songs such as Marianne Faithful’s ‘What’s the Hurry?’, ‘Let’s Get It Started’ by Black Eyed Peas, and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the playlist provides the soundtrack to shepherd the citizen through the painstaking journey of filing personal tax returns. This is the annual display of fiscal aptness involving an enlightened citizen who navigates one’s tax deductions for household expenses, maintenance obligations, union fees, mortgage interest, and so forth. Somewhat optimistically, the playlist also included The Beatles’s ‘We Can Work It Out’ and ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge, finally ending on Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’. Appearing like a sports coach on the running track, the Finnish Tax Administration accompanied the playlist with a set of inspirational slogans: “Deadline is approaching! This list will give you a kick. Come on, come on! U can do it! It shall be all right! Believe in yourself! Forward!” (English phrases italicized)
To lighten up what is generally considered as one of the most arduous, time-consuming annual bureaucratic tasks, the Finnish Tax Administration harnessed Spotify to engage with the Finnish taxpaying public. The Spotify playlist is one of the many mediums through which the Finnish Tax Administration has sought to craft an approachable public image. On Instagram and Twitter, they post tax-related memes, in addition to informing about looming deadlines, latest regulations, and answering citizens’ tax-questions. On their Soundcloud page, a series of podcasts called ‘Tax Meditation’ was recently released, featuring a calming female voice guiding the listener through the latest tax rules and advise, whilst their YouTube channel features the“Tax Whisperer”, a bearded hipster breathing tax advice with a playful smile on his face.
It would be hard-pressed to frame these expressions as neoliberal artefacts of bureaucratic self-fashioning (‘getting close to our customers’), because of the element of self-satire that inheres in each and every one of these examples.
So why are the Finnish Tax Administration turning into hipsters now? Lotta Björklund Larsen (2017) has shown how Sweden’s tax agency nurtures or shapes compliant taxpayers who willingly take part in maintaining a Nordic welfare state. In her analysis, this is a question of legitimacy rather than image: the wide coverage of public welfare can only be maintained for as long as the tax agency enjoys the taxpaying public’s full support. The same applies for Finland, where a recent survey revealed a whopping 98 per cent of Finns consider taxpaying important for maintaining the welfare state. Obviously such figures hardly call for the full-scale charm offensive of the Finnish Tax Administration: it is very hard to improve the agency’s high rating.
The adoption of a new, playful public image seems to rather coincide with the introduction of the agency’s new online portal, which automatizes many functions previously settled in person together with Tax Administration officials. The campaign appears to have been highly successful insofar as the vero.fi portal is concerned: critique has been non-existent. But all this also coincides with wider changes that the Finnish tax authorities are tackling with: in 2017 the Finnish government passed a bill which allows Finnish citizens to own shares in Finnish businesses through nondisclosed foreign securities. At the same time, the tax authorities have, since 2019, allowed high earners to declare their tax records secret; up until 2019 the Tax Administration provided the national media with a public list of Finnish taxpayers who earned more than 100,000 euros in a year. The media, on their part, produced ranking lists of the nation’s highest earners and highest net-taxpayers, a publication appearing every November that some right-leaning quarters call the National Jealousy Day.
However, since 2019, the transparency of these lists has become subject to doubt. Both changes, owning shares through non-disclosed foreign securities and making tax records secret, signal a departure from a long-standing policy of high-degree public accountability. At the same time, the public demand for the transparency of tax records remains – in 2020, Finnish newspapers did investigative work on those high-earners who declared their tax records secret, publishing separate lists of these individuals and demanding answers for their decision.
Where the Tax Administration enjoys a remarkably high public support, even the slightest threat to public accountability matters. Against this background, the Spotify playlist for filing personal tax returns, Tax Meditation and Tax Whisperer craft an image of the kind of public institution that engages in self-deprecating humour, isn’t too glamorous (for example, the ‘sports coach’ on the running track with Europe’s ‘Final Countdown’ in the background), and that could still be considered as being on the ordinary taxpayer’s side. Whether a product of an outsourced marketing consultancy or an internal PR brainstorming session, the newly released social media artefacts of the Finnish Tax Administration demonstrate the shifting dynamics and affects of state-citizen fiscal relations. In Finland where playfulness does not quite capture how citizens engage with the Tax Administration in practice (with utmost seriousness!), filing personal tax returns with the power of Spotify and engaging in meditative practice listening to Finnish tax legislation signals the newly found possibilities of digital media for shaping taxpayers.
Björklund Larsen, Lotta 2017. Shaping Taxpayers: Values in Action at the Swedish Tax Agency. New York: Berghahn.