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June 22, 2005

Mixed Messages

This is old old news, but I thought it highlights some of the issues facing law, commercial speech, consumerism and culture.

Mixed Messages
Advertisers are learning that if you want to sell products in China, you have to understand the people—all 1.3 billion of them
By Bryan Walsh | Beijing

Nov. 4, 2002

Advertising agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT) thought it was playing it safe two years ago when it adapted a Pizza Hut TV commercial from the U.S. by using Chinese actors. The spot featured a classroom of kids giving reports on their weekends, capped by a student who gets so excited recounting his trip to Pizza Hut that he climbs on top of his desk. Bart Simpson's antics might be fair game in a U.S. classroom, but the China Advertising Association (CAA)—the government agency that vets commercials—decided the pizza ad had too much ham. Censors "thought the end was impolite," says Lo Sheung Yan, JWT's Northeast Asia executive creative director. JWT had to substitute a bowdlerized version, sans delinquent behavior, before it could air the ad.

The Pizza Hut faux pas highlights a dilemma that challenges advertising's creative types as they try to beguile mainland audiences. From a handful of TV spots that resembled infomercials, advertising in China has grown over the past decade both in size—to nearly $11 billion in 2001 according to ACNielsen, making it the fourth largest ad market in the world—and in quality. "In China, it's still what we call the Golden Age of Advertising," says T.B. Song, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather China. While Chinese consumers have become increasingly sophisticated, however, it's still tough crafting a message that doesn't irritate the audience or get snagged by government censors.

The Taiwanese-born Song, who in 1992 was among the first wave of expat talent to hit the mainland, says the essential problem for advertisers and their clients alike "is that this market is too big and research data is difficult and expensive to get." Tom Doctoroff, JWT's CEO for Northeast Asia, prefers to subdivide the country's population into four major categories—youth, the emerging middle class, women and the old—each of which demands a customized approach. China's youth, for example, show "a desire for individualism coupled with a fear of becoming truly individualistic," according to Doctoroff. He cites as an example a Yahoo TV commercial featuring a mailman who completes his appointed rounds while doing a funky dance. He is saved from being locked up in a Beijing mental ward by the ad's ending that reveals he is just one member of a funk-dancing team. "It's about being kooky," says Doctoroff, "but being kooky in a group."

China's notoriously vague advertising laws are one of the biggest dangers for the unwary copywriter. Some of the regulations are designed to protect public health—as in the West, cigarette ads are restricted, and the law prohibits blatantly false advertising. Other rules defend Chinese citizens' impressionable minds. The final cut is usually left up to the CAA. Yang Peiqing, the association's president, sums up its regulatory philosophy: "The release of an advertisement should not only produce a better economic result but a better result in spiritual civilization."

That's a tall order—and a murky one—for a soft-drink ad. But at least advertisers know there are certain hot buttons they must not push, such as depictions of political protests. Apple Computer's award-winning television spot directed by Ridley Scott that was aired in the U.S. during the 1984 Super Bowl showed an Orwellian dystopia challenged by a sledgehammer-throwing young woman: precisely the type of commercial that a Chinese censor would say is lacking in "spiritual civilization."

Once you've cleared the censors, you've still got to charm the intended crowd. The last thing advertisers want to do is treat their audience like bumpkins. When JWT developed the first original Nike ad for China a few years ago, it opted not to use its go-to pitchman for the U.S, his Airness Michael Jordan. Instead JWT went for homegrown basketball players, including Wang Zhizhi of the Bayi Rockets. Alas, Chinese kids want to be like Mike, not like Wang, and the ad flopped. "All we were trying to say is that China has great basketball stars, too," says Doctoroff. "But it was interpreted that we were talking down to them, insulting their intelligence." In any country, that's the worst mistake an advertiser can make.

Posted by sinogeek at June 22, 2005 12:29 PM


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