Sunday, 6 April 2008

Chinese Advertising

One planning topic that needs some understanding in developing economies is media literacy. Mary Goodyear has looked into this subject extensively, and you can read all about it over here and Fredrik did a splendid post related to the topic over at his.

From the outside it may seem that the creativity is often lackluster in this part of the world and for sure, it is in the main, like pulling teeth to coax the clients (and agencies) to go the extra mile and explore some of the dimensions of advertising that can be achieved. Forgive me if this seems like I'm pulling out unremarkable ads but this is one of the first commercials I came across that stood out.

This is actually quite a big deal for a paint ad in Asia. I can just see the spreadsheet marketer saying stuff like "you want to show people throwing my paint around?" or "what have birds, hay and diving got to do with my brand?", "why isn't there a paintbrush in the picture?", "can't we have a basso profondo voice in the ad?" and so on and so forth. The reason is that the people who frequently manage marketing and advertising in Asia are often the kind of people who can cope with high volume but really struggle with ideas like metaphors, feelings, emotions and expression. I should call a halt to this right now because I could go on and on but suffice to say that a lot of people have made a lot of money managing that huge growth and volume over the last 15 years or so and are at the top of their game without actually ever squeezing out a creative puppy.

So I think its a big deal that Saatchi & Saatchi advertising got this through and I believe it was subsequently awarded an Effie which pleased me if only because championing creative is so hard and because it won for those very same reasons I listed above, that I believe most China based marketeers and agencies are simply not geared up for. Clearly Chinese customers felt differently than the average marketing whizz often does, because they voted with their wallets and gave a 46% increase in sales value of high end products nationwide and more than doubled the targeted 20% increase. There are however a few problems before we pop the Veuve Clicquot, because the ad is way clearly an homage at best, and rip off at worst to the Fallon ad for Sony Bravia, which I think is even better than Balls. Here it is.

So you can park that Effie and all the planning plonk that goes into saying how good the agency and/or planner and/or creative and/or client were because all they did was probably add extraneous process between looking in the right direction for inspiration and actually getting on with ahem 'copying it'. I would however like to see more emulation of the good stuff and a stiff brush to sweep away the marketing mediocrity that needs to make 5.5 (million dollars) by 55 years of know who you are! The problem is that a certain genre of adman has made a tidy living out of punting the lamest of the lame creativity and the emperor needs calling out on the absence of threads.

Sticking out is a big deal in Asian culture. There is an expression that the nail that sticks out gets hammered in, and yet it is my belief that this cannot pertain to advertising. The nail that stands out gets noticed in advertising or can even be outstanding. I've spent a lot of time listening to greatly opposing forces in meetings with spadefuls of advertising spiel and waffle that talks a good game on words such as creativity, brand values and vision but all boils down to the infinitely bland. Why is this happening? Take a look at that Joy Island's photography and the last few seconds of the Nippon paint ad and you'll start to make the connection because as soon as I saw it on the web, I knew I needed to know the story and find the photographer.

Lovely isn't it? There's more...

Brutal huh? Probably not for marketing communications but maybe another day as one of my more challenging traits is that I like to press buttons. Its only when someone explodes that I know their breaking point that I understand what they care about. One of my closest friends had exactly the same characteristic as me. We were both political junkies and we'd be at each other's throats over CNN and BBC world news. As early risers this would sometimes happened before before 6 AM when we shared the same apartment. Great times looking back, but returning to my point, through a process of saying the wrong things and seeing where the greatest sensitivity lies I've uncovered an uncomfortable truth about the powerhouse economy which isn't really a brilliant insight as its all been said before. It is however the most raw nerve in China. Innovation is not a trait that springs to mind in the PRC but the one that created the darkest face was when I rationalized the extra 40 slides being asked of me as along the lines of "so what you're saying is to copy other brand's mediocre strategy?"

I've since found that the "copy" word is like a red rag to a bull, like spilled blood to a boxer, like throwing paint around to a paint marketer (ok I'm exaggerating) because in the absence of innovation all that is left is correctional marketing and 'the middle way' between too much emotional and too much rational in a brand. Then stick it through the research process designed to remove any of the interesting bits and lastly link test it so that if there is a shred of an idea remaining, we can drill it out and stick in something the respondents wanted instead. I ask you, why don't we just give our TARGET market some pens and watch them under the cross hairs with a snipers bullet until they have written the ads themselves?

Maybe this is why some people don't want the blue collar migrant workers as their customers because WHO would want those people in our nice focus group room with free snacks and refreshments, even though they are the backbone of the country. I mean, their media literacy sucks anyway doesn't it?

I always thought that the point of really good advertising, as with any facet of popular cultural expression is to lift people in some way through humour, feelings or observation because ulimately it elevates us all in the end doesn't it?

Or as a very clever and young person said to me last year. Confusion makes you smarter.


  1. Well said Charles and while I agree with you on the relative mertits of Paint versus Balls, I'm tempted to say that this one was potentially even better. The throwing of the paint conveys so much about the product and its practial impact as well as the emotion of colour. Just wish they'd allowed the structure to be more fluid.

  2. This is a truly wonderful post Charles - but I suspect you knew that when you were writing it ;)

    There is another issue in Asian advertising that I find particulary interesting, and that is when an Asian company wants to make an ad that is completely different to their Western operation, even if the existing commercial would be highly appealing and effective.

    It seems the driving force behind this is not cultural relevance [which is often the most convienient excuse used] but the fear that their budget/job would be taken away if foreign commercials are seen as being equally effective in their region.

    Without doubt there are major cultural differences - hell, they exist between cities, let alone countries - however sometimes there is a commonality that can engage, enthrall and motivate everyone and yet in many cases we are seeing companies choose to ignore option for their own personal job/budget protection.

    Personally that seems like they're working against the best interests of the company/shareholders, but as we know, fear is a more powerful motivator than praise - especially in certain countries within the Asia region.

    Finally on the issue of metaphores, I do agree that there has been ample research to demonstrate Asia does not 'get this', however in my personal experience, that is not always the case.

    Maybe, thanks to education, technology and free[er] trade, Asia is evolving ... but I personally believe there has always been an appreciation of 'metaphore' because so much of the region operates on 'myth and legend' so if they can see 'hidden' meaning meaning behind such mundane things of sweeping the house at CNY, I am sure many can appreciate advertising metaphore, infact I know they can because our SONY Robot ad was universally understood - though to be fair, I made sure it was about as subtle as a salami down a pair of Y-fronts.

    I think the biggest thing is there is never one definitive answer, and yet advertising, marketing and research loves to claim there is - which is probably why we're all in the state we're in.

    Great post Charles ...

  3. Agreed Doddsy but the frightening point you also make is that paint and tellys can be sold the same way...sort of.

    Thanks Rob. I always think when I start one of these posts that its going to be my undoing. That I'll make a fool of myself and so I appreciate your words. I guess what drives me nuts is that I believe I have greater faith in the Chinese ability to be both creative and connect with creativity.

    You've made a brilliant point about adaptation obssesion. It really is just that. A justification for peoples jobs and yet we never saw a travelling art exhibition or city orchestra 'adapt' the art for cultural reasons. We look for the commonalities not the differences and sure we might play crowd pleasers but I don't think Van Gogh's yellow is going to be adapted to red to please the Chinese.

    I am TOTALLY with you on the metaphor thing. I wrote some of the most academically well researched presentations I've ever done on this subject and its not a cut and dried equation. Everything is contextual as I keep saying and I've also come across just as many visual metaphors and word game play across Asia as elsewhere.

    I just got off Skype with someone who says they are having lunch with you on Wednesday...ha ha ..Small world again!

  4. Naa. Actually its the Purple list (winky)

  5. Sod off Campbell! I can't imagine you flying anything less than Upper Class to San Fran every weekend ;)