Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Smile - You're on Camera

One of the first bust ups I had with the Red Bull pitch that we won was the use of this visual. I rejected it on the basis that it used women who aren't the main customer group, but more importantly because it is everything about branding in China that is wrong wrong wrong. It's easy for marketing people in China to look at the smiley happy people in Western FMCG advertising and think that's the way to do it, but what invariably comes out in China is a thick smear of unvarnished schmaltz. The notion of portraying anything approaching real life is anathema to the marketing heads in China including Li Ning who hasn't got a clue that the branding part is the dramatization of the blood pumping through an organisation, not some laquered image projection.


These girls are the Olympic hostesses. They are trained to smile and it's this training that is the problem. Not the solution. The Chinese bless them, have had a tragic modern history, that like the Russians is bloody and dripping in carnage juice not to mention infused with suspicion and fear. Nobody could really deny it, even the Chinese, but they choose to ignore it collectively white wash over what makes them who they are today. That's where it goes wrong.
So you can see that the smile is part of the Olympic orchestrated image. The idea put in front of me (yes this is the level of creative in China we often see) was that after a hard days working at their smile, a gal just needs to take a swig on her Red Bull to make it through the day. Of course the idea is risible and explains why I often want to just write the fucking scripts myself but just to be professional I pointed out that the reasons for rejection were, it wasn't female, it wasn't blue collar enough (lorry drivers are often paid a subsidy to drink Red Bull and not fall asleep at the wheel) and most important of all, that the smile did not come from the HEART. A synthetic smile is exactly what I expect Li Ning to insist upon and make no mistake he doesn't undertand that it's all about saying 'fucking hell, I failed' that makes a brand.

It's not just Li Ning. It's the entire country. 1.3 Billion population and despite loving them hugely for so many things, I've yet to come across one Chinese entrepreneur, or brand visionary who has the balls to embrace their flaws and their run with it.
There are reasons for this and I'll explain some of those in some later posts.
But in the mean time I'd also like to see a Western agency that can see past their noses and their short term immediate profits (show me one ad, just one ad) that knows it's all about saying no to clients who are often under immense pressure to deliver the synthetic goods, on time and on budget. What most Western agencies don't realise is that this is an economic bubble we're living in and that doesn't justify running with what I think is so often some of the weakest creativity I've ever come across and I think I've worked in more countries than most. 

One of my predictions however is that just like punk emerging from the ashes of a charred British society I anticipate an unleashing of the creative Chinese spirit once this amazing country hits harder times. When it's not all about the money because there will be less of it about. 

For the time being though most are on the oxyacetylane rampant consumerism which the smarter people in the West know has a logic that predicts and defines it's own end with a simplicity that will leaving most people gasping......or choking if you wish.


  1. This is a bloody brilliant post Charles - and demonstrates why you must stay in Asia/China because if you don't, the wave of Mr Bean / Disneyland conformity will possibly drown us all.

    As an aside, my other half once was asked to do a brand guideline book for a company about to launch in China. When she saw they didn't just want to MANDATE staff smiles, but actually defined what a smile had to be [4-6 upper teeth in constant show] she walked away.

    I know some cultures - because of historical actions - are so ruled by fear that they seek permission for almost every act, but this sort of thing makes me sick ... especially when Western organisations follow suit, regarding it almost as a positive trait.

  2. Oh ... and apprentely the brand guideline book dictated how people walked as well!


  3. Great post Charles. Working in Oz I'm more than familiar with Asian advertising. At least I thought I was. The only ads we see here are scams done by Brits and Aussies. Real Asian area ads are dull. Hopefully your approach will help change that.