Shanghai Advertising - the rise of consumer culture in a communist country.

I've chatted a bit with Fredrik Olsson from Miami ad agency in Gothenburg about his recent trip to Shanghai. What is advertising like over there? Do they have really naive billboards, like ours used to be in the 60s? Do they have guerrilla advertising which is Miami's speciality? Do they have TV-ads?

Fredrik was kind enough to respond at length: The Guerrilla advertising business in Shanghai is not without its dangers...

"The advertising biz in China is quite young, perhaps just a few years (not counting ol' Hong Kong of course), and it is only after this new year that foreign companies can register on the market in China without Chinese partners or other similar arrangements. Of course, there's been advertising made in China, particularly in expansive regions such as Shanghai, but it has been done illegally while waiting for the laws to change. This kind of inconsistency is typical for the communist party of China. But in China, there is no real communism. Yes you read that right. It's a dictatorship with all that entails, but there's no red-book of ideology that is followed slavishly like in the past Soviet Union. Shanghai is a technorati-town and is ruled by hyper-capitalism. Everything can be bought for money and those who are rich or well-connected don't exactly have to follow all the rules. In China there is no welfare state and there is no social security system for those who were born poor or sick.

But sure, there are rules for those who want to advertise. You can't criticize the party or engage in any "enemy of the state" ideas. It's OK to do events, in good order, but you can not arrange for too much interactivity/participation with the public audience as that might count as "market research" and that sort of thing is forbidden by The Party, who are terrified that someone else might find out what people in China think. All forms of guerrilla and alternative advertising are labelled "market research": A seemingly harmless activity such as handing out flyers on the street could get you a few days in jail. You might not get beat up but you'll be thoroughly interrogated. And, they'll keep an eye on you in the future.

It's clearly rare that they flog different thinkers and radical groups with advertising and media, but The Party have excellent tools for messing with your business. They can shut down your company with one phone call and kick you out of the country if you prove too 'difficult'. Or the holy police will come and search your house or your office when you least expect them to. Legally it's a different story - not that it matters in practice, since The Party will do what they want anyway - but there aren't that many laws rules or guidelines about guerrilla advertising. They don't have a precedent since nobody has thought of or dared to do something alternative yet. Graffiti is one good example. If you were to choose to spray-paint your ad on a wall there is no law against it since nobody has done this before. You can probably count on being punished anyway, but no law says it's illegal....yet.

Dab: OK, that sounds pretty harsh. What about traditional ads and posters, are they 30 years behind?

"Well, Chinese advertising is rather infantile if you're looking only at the creative. It probably has nothing to do with the government oppression, like it does in communist Sweden, instead it's most likely due to lack of creative (ad) tradition. The Chinese people are simply not used to brainstorming brilliant marketing messages. They've grown up in a society that has not encouraged initiative and where even the smallest group of people need to be steered by a boss who yells a lot and points with his whole hand. If there is no leader like that the workers will spin around in circles like headless chickens not knowing what to do. A society like that doesn't exactly encourage great creativity and the advertising directors we've been talking to say that it is extremely difficult to find good creatives - particularly Art Directors who have a more westernized mode of attack on the marketing problems. What they don't lack on the other hand are great layouters, skilled illustrators and bad ass retouch artists. Chinese advertising is extraordinarily good looking and technically advanced when you only look at the execution.

You'll also see a lot of sexist and gender role conserving advertising. A lot of macho gruff for the men and pink fluffy stars for the women.

Another reason you'll see so much crap, flat, drab advertising is that the companies simply get away with it. They've literally just opened the gates for advertising and regular 约瑟 man on the street thinks it's fun and positive with advertising. It's exiting because it's new, a little like how Swedes felt in the late eighties when we got commercial TV channels. There's commercials on some Chinese channels now, but I didn't see that many home-grown TVC's. There was a lot of adaptation ads, which is abundant in all advertising media there. Some campaigns have been tweaked to fit China better, others are simply broadcast the way there were in other countries but I doubt that works very well. I think you need to be a westerner to 'get' those campaigns."

Dab:. That's really interesting, thanks for satisfying my own curiosity Fredrik.

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caffeinegoddess's picture

Nice insights. Great post Dab and thanks for your time Fredrik. :)

FFN's picture

I was a bit surprised by Fredrik's opinion. I lived in Shanghai for a year back in 2000-2001 and I have been back several times. With the exception of the ban on market research, he isn't describing the Shanghai I know. There is a tremendous amount of product placement. For example, music videos often double as 5 minute advertisements. In fact, the clever promotional tactics of companies such as Pepsi inspired me to go back to school and earn a Ph.D. in marketing (which I am finishing up now). Advertising in China is often different than in the USA or Europe but it isn't more primitive. Advertisers in China do the same as they do everywhere else--whatever works best for their target market.

deeped's picture

Well - that was what he said: they somehow are working in a context where people aren't used to advertising and therefore the height of creativity is low. And somehow Fredriks opinion's is colored by the fact that he was talking about the alternative marketing: product placement isn't alternative.

FFN's picture

Yes, my original comment is not directly addressing his main point.  However, I still think that he didn't dig deep enough.  For example, the promoters in the Shanghai underground music scene (which is quite vibrant) used alternative advertising.  For example, promotional posters were hung as art in an art museum.  Granted these were not professional advertisers but I still think it was quite creative.  Certainly, the music was creative.