What's in a Name? On China's Search for Socialist Advertising
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What’s in a Name?
On China’s Search for Socialist Advertising
Abstract

This article presents a historical review of China’s rhetorical efforts in the last two decades to adapt advertising to its socialist context. It focuses on four major Chinese discourses, including the discourse in the late 1970s and early 1980s to legitimize advertising in the socialist state, the discourse on socialist advertising with Chinese characteristics, the discourse on learning from Western advertising, and the discourse on the negative social effects of advertising. The author argues that, though the Chinese rhetoric does not make a strong case for socialist advertising, it nevertheless serves as a sensitive barometer of Chinese advertising regulatory policies and thus holds significant implications for advertising practice in China.

Introduction

Modern advertising in the United States emerged at the end of the 19th century as a result of large-scale industrialization and urbanization (Pope, 1983; Norris, 1980). So, to a certain extent, it is safe to say that advertising is a product of capitalism, and its philosophical roots can be found in the idea system of classical liberalism and its major economic institution, the market system (Rotzoll & Haefner, 1996, p. 30).

In the last two decades, as part of the globalization process, transnational companies and advertising agencies, which are largely headquartered in the West, have been actively expanding their operation in developing countries (Mattelart, 1991; Kim, 1995). As most of the developing countries differ dramatically from their Western counterparts in terms of their economic, social, and cultural heritage, presumably their institutionalization of advertising differs, too. In such a case, we have to wonder: How do developing countries adapt advertising to the local context? To what extent does advertising in these countries differ from its Western counterpart? Or, has the rapid global expansion of capitalism successfully scattered the seeds of classical liberalism around and consequently made the local environment accommodating for the development of Western-style advertising?

As an endeavor to answer these questions, this article will present a historical review of China’s rhetorical efforts in the last two decades to adapt advertising to its socialist context. More specifically, after a brief introduction to the general development of Chinese advertising since 1979, the article will focus on four major Chinese discourses, including the discourse in the late 1970s and early 1980s to legitimize advertising in the socialist state, the discourse on socialist advertising with Chinese characteristics, the discourse on learning from Western advertising, and the discourse on the negative social effects of advertising. It is the author’s argument that, though the Chinese rhetoric does not make a strong case for socialist advertising, it nevertheless serves as a sensitive barometer of Chinese advertising regulatory policies and thus holds significant implications for advertising practice in China.

The General Development of Chinese Advertising Since 1979

Modern advertising emerged in China in the late 19th century. Introduced by Westerners, Chinese advertising at that time primarily facilitated foreign businesses to promote their products in big cities and thus bore a strong colonial birthmark (Wang, 1997). The 1930s is said to be the “old golden time” of Chinese advertising (Xu, 1989). After the Chinese Communist Party came into power in 1949, the socialist state tolerated the existence of advertising but intentionally restrained and minimized its role in the Chinese economy (Chen, 1997). During the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, advertising completely disappeared from the Chinese media because the Chinese radicals believed that “advertising is a necessary evil for the capitalist countries caused by overproduction and under-consumption” (Chu, 1982, p. 40).

Advertising was reintroduced into China in 1979 as part of the Chinese government’s plan to reorient its economy and has been developing rapidly since then. Especially after 1992, as China formally embraced “a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics,” Chinese advertising has become one of the fastest growing industries in the country. In terms of global advertising spending, China ranked 36th in 1990 and jumped to ninth in 1997 (Song & Wong, 1998). In 1979, there were only a dozen Chinese advertising firms; by 2001, there were 78,339 advertising companies in China, with a total turnover of more than 9.6 billion...