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Advertising in China

William M. O'Barr

[Editor's Note:This article is a part of ADText.]

Photo of a Billboard for Coke
Fig. 14.1 A Coke Billboard in China [ENG] [Source]

"If you could sell every Chinese a Coke, you'd be very rich indeed."
—Unnamed 20th-Century Coca-Cola Executive

"Poverty is not socialism.
To be rich is glorious."

—Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), Prominent Politician, Reformist,

and Head of the Chinese Communist Party

Contradictory elements coexist in modern China—urban sophistication and rural backwardness, wealth and poverty, and the imported along with the indigenous. Nothing seems more contradictory to outsiders than the seemingly opposing economic philosophies of capitalism and communism—but both are robust forces in the China of the new millennium.

Familiarize yourself with timelines of Chinese history and dynasties.
This unit explores the role of advertising within the avowedly socialist political environment of China. It examines the history of advertising in China prior to the advent of the communist regime at the end of World War II, the state-sponsored propaganda that replaced consumer advertising from the 1950s onwards, and the reintroduction and proliferation of advertising in modern China. It explores the regulations imposed by the People's Republic of China (PRC) on advertising, the cultural and social values expressed in advertisements, the media outlets available in modern China, and the relations between multinational advertising agencies operating in China and indigenous agencies.

1. Advertising in Pre-War China

The history of advertising in China1 falls into three broad periods in which the goals and techniques of publicity are somewhat different. These are: (1) Chinese advertising up to the end of World War II, (2) the high period of state-sponsored propaganda (roughly, 1949-1980s), and (3) contemporary China (that is, China after the Open Door Policy began in the late 1970s).

The first period has no clearly delineated beginning since advertisements of one sort or another are known to have existed in China for centuries. The long history of pictorial advertising in China is confirmed by the existence of a copper printing plate from the Song Dynasty (960-1260). Inscriptions on the engraving plate indicate that it was used to print wrapping paper for acupuncture needles. The advertising copy and accompanying illustration proclaimed the excellence of the needles and provided the address where they were manufactured.

Woodcut for Needles
Fig. 14.2 Earliest Known Pictorial Advertisement from China (c. 960-1260) [Source]

Few actual advertisements printed before the 19th century survive today. A small number of packing boxes, wrapping papers, and handbills with advertising messages from as long ago as one thousand years ago have been preserved and give some idea of China's rich advertising past. Ellen Johnston Laing offers three reasons why so few old advertisements exist: (1) paper and ink were themselves fragile and not expected to have a long life, (2) paper containing advertisements was often recycled for other uses, and (3) a tradition known as the "reverence for lettered paper" on which Chinese characters were written called for the proper disposal of paper.

Treaties signed at the end of the Opium Wars in 1842 opened five Chinese cities to Western trade. Manuscripts and archives from this period show that advertising proliferated alongside the trade. Laing writes that by the mid-1800s, "Western products in shops attracted both the curious just to gawk and the wealthy to purchase some modern item. By the late 19th century, Shanghai Chinese were familiar with Western gadgets such as desk or mantel clocks, hanging oil lamps with glass globes, and other technological advances, soon to include trains, trams, and automobiles."2

Postcard showing Shanghai Street
Fig. 14.3 Advertising Was Prevalent in Early 20th-Century Shanghai [Source]

Along with Western products came many forms of promotional advertising—signboards, posters, black-and-white newspaper ads, and colorful advertising calendars. Images in advertisements introduced Chinese audiences to Western representational art, and it was largely through advertising that Western forms of art gained familiarity and acceptance in China.

Photo of Billboard for Pirate Cigarettes
Fig. 14.4 This Billboard Advertised BAT Cigarettes
along a Chinese Roadside (c. 1920)

Perhaps the most popular form of advertising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the pictorial calendar, either given to customers as a premium or sold for a small price. These calendars carried advertising that named manufacturing firms and/or retail shops and featured alluring pictures. These calendars were frequently used to decorate the walls of Chinese homes where they served as enduring advertisements.

View more advertising images from pre-war China here and here.
Advertising agencies employed talented artists to design illustrations for calendars. Their images were so popular that they were also frequently sold as "hangers" (pictures alone without the calendar). As in France where the advertising poster and high art intermingle, the artists of pre-World War II period China gained popularity among the public. Some of the best-known artists accepted apprentices, founded training schools, and produced non-commercial art, as well as advertisements.

The image in Figure 14.5 is typical of advertising poster art. It was created by Ni Gengye, who worked as a commercial artist for the British American Tobacco Co. (BAT) from 1928 to 1938. He produced many well-known images during this period and is considered by scholars to have been one of the major Chinese commercial artists of the period. This particular image shows a modest, oval-faced young woman posing on a garden bench. The advertised brand of cigarettes can be seen in the bottom foreground.

Calendar Poster
Fig. 14.5 An Advertising Image Created for BAT Tobacco in China (c. 1928-1938) [Source]

Calendar images featured many varieties of women. Some are demure, as in Figure 14.5. Others are more expressive or overtly sexy. Most are seated, in submissive poses, with bent heads, collapsed shoulders, and down-cast eyes. Despite these differences, most are depicted in a style that contemporary scholars call the male gaze—meaning that their clothes, makeup, smiles and other mannerisms, as well as their entire bodies are posed as objects for male spectators.

Calendar Poster
Fig. 14.6 A Fashionable Woman Wearing a Cheungsam3 by Hang Zhiying (c. late 1930s) [Source]

Calendar Poster
Fig. 14.7 Another Variety of the Calendar Woman from Pre-War Shanghai [Source]

The life and times of Carl Crow are assessed in Paul French's book, Carl Crow—A Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times, and Adventures of an American in Shanghai.
Carl Crow, an American who lived in pre-war China and ran a successful advertising agency, published a memoir of his experiences. His book, Four Hundred Million Customers (1937), was a bestseller in America.4 Since then, the population of China has grown from 400 million to 1.3 billion. Crow focused on the "curious" customs of the Chinese people, especially with regard to buying and consumption behaviors, and on the issues he faced in advertising to the Chinese.

Crow noted, in particular, the problem of literacy and its consequences for advertising. He wrote:

The fact that such a large portion of the people cannot read has led us to adopt a very simple technique in the preparation of advertising copy, and that is to make every advertisement as complete as possible without the use of a word of text, in other words, to resort to the old device of picture-writing. We know, in spite of our sales argument to advertisers that anyone who can buy advertised goods can read a newspaper, that the statement is slightly inaccurate. There are a great many illiterates who … own motor-cars and smoke expensive cigarettes. There are even more wives of prosperous men who cannot read, because female education has only recently become a popular fad. The Chinese wife who spends the money in the family usually cannot read the paper her husband subscribes for, but she will look at the pictures and, if our advertising shows a good picture of the package with an illustration showing what the article is used for, we feel that it has probably accomplished something, has presented a message to the reader who cannot read.5

In addition to the advertisements that appeared in public spaces and on the walls of private homes, manufacturers also inserted trade cards into many packaged goods. This technique of providing a collectible card was a familiar technique not only in China but in many other countries, including the United States, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the trade cards in China often featured images similar to those on calendars, other images brought visions of foreign lands, and especially the Western world, to China.

2. Advertising and the People's Republic of China

The Communist rise to power in 1949 ushered in a new age that ultimately saw advertising almost entirely disappear. Propaganda developed in its place—often occupying the same physical spaces where billboards and posters once displayed commercial advertisements. From 1949 through the late 1980s, the People's Republic of China published and sold through official bookshops thousands of posters that were used to decorate the walls of classrooms, offices, and homes throughout the country. Simple and straightforward in form and content in the early years, these posters increased in complexity and variety through three decades until their decline in the late 1980s.

Capitalist advertising and Western products disappeared just as quickly as they had appeared in China. Cityscapes once lively with colorful posters and flashing neon became drab with repetitive handbills and red-inked posters:

Neon signs for shops and products were destroyed… The likes of cosmetics, jewelry, Western-style dress… countered against the prevailing proletarian ideology; brand names, logos, and advertisements that evoked traditional cultural motifs and themes were also regarded as problematic. Many brands and stores adopted new names such as "Red Guard," "People," and "Workers and Peasants."6

Many of the techniques used in commercial advertisements continued to be used in the production of propaganda posters, but obviously toward different ends. Chinese posters were also influenced by Soviet-style propaganda. Traditional Chinese painting techniques, absent in the posters of earlier years, were later introduced into the amalgam of style that constituted poster art.

During the period immediately following the establishment of the PRC, posters directly translated political philosophy into public announcements. For example, a poster from 1953 encouraged physical hygiene. This campaign articulated the state's objectives of controlling and managing the bodies of its citizens in order to govern them properly. Reformist thinker Sun Yat-sen succinctly stated the philosophy behind this campaign: "competent governance of the body's natural functions [is a] necessary condition for competent government."7

Poster about Hygiene
Fig. 14.8 Competent Governance of the Body
Is Necessary for Competent Government
[ENG] [Source]

Read more about the Cultural Revolution in China.
The Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 sought to eradicate the "Four Olds" (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits).8 A poster from this period proclaims the importance of revolutionary breaks with the past. It encourages citizens to join and support changes.

Poster about Cultural Revolution
Fig. 14.9 Images Like This Provided Models for Behavior and Thought
in the Cultural Revolution
[ENG] [Source]

Read about Public Service Advertising in the US in the Online Curriculum.
Later political posters focused on such matters as celebrating China's successful space launch in 1970 (Figure 14.10) and adhering to the one-child-per-family policy (Figure 14.11). A recent poster from 2004 focuses on eradicating avian flu (Figure 14.12). These posters have familiar parallels to public service advertising in the US. Although both Chinese and American posters promote social policies thought to benefit the public, those in China come from the government, whereas those in the US are more frequently sponsored by private, non-governmental organizations.

Poster about Space Program
Fig. 14.10 This Poster Celebrates the First Chinese Earth Satellite (1970) [ENG] [Source]

Poster about Family Planning
Fig. 14.11 This Poster Promotes China's One-Child Policy (1986) [ENG] [Source]

Poster about Avian Flu
Fig. 14.12 "Propaganda" or "Public Service Advertising"?
This Contemporary Poster Urges Citizens to Fight Avian Flu (2004)
[ENG] [Source]

The art of state-sponsored propaganda in the former Soviet Union is termed socialist realism, a style that promotes the goals of socialism and communism. This term can also be applied to the Chinese posters and billboards that instructed people in the proper ways to live their lives and told them what they should believe and do. Sociologist Michael Schudson coined the term capitalist realism to describe the art of advertising in the West, making specific reference through his choice of terminology to its parallel promotion of the goals of capitalism. It likewise offers instructions to the public about appropriate aspirations and behaviors.

Visit some extensive collections of posters produced by the Chinese government here and here.
Although art in the period from 1949 to 1980 was marked by shifts of focus and differences of approach, all of it shared the goal of serving the needs of the state and, thereby, society. As early as 1942, Mao Zedong had rejected the idea of art for art's sake and proclaimed the primary goal of art to be political. This philosophy of the role of art in society continued from the founding of the PRC until at least the late 1980s when many stringent policies were relaxed. In its heyday, this philosophy applied not only to poster art but to all forms of artistic creation in China.

For example, in 1960 the artist Li Qi rendered Chairman Mao in simple clothes and a straw hat, simultaneously glorifying him and portraying him as a man of the people. This form of art—representational portraiture in a Chinese realist style—draws on both Western representational modes and Soviet socialist realism. However, the portrait features an empty background, a typical feature of much traditional Chinese art, thereby linking it to local traditions of painting.

Portrait of Chairman Mao
Fig. 14.13 Portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong (1960) [Source]

3. The Reemergence of Commercial Advertising in China

The Open Door Policy of the late 1970s reintroduced commercial advertising in China. As Communist China created special capitalist economic zones and opened itself to increased foreign commerce, commercial advertisements found a place in the society once again. Today advertisements are as ubiquitous as they are in Western nations and serve similar purposes. John Gittings, a Westerner who lived in China from the 1970s onwards, describes the transition he witnessed in the shift away from state-sponsored art to advertising:

By the early 1980s, blank spaces were appearing on the walls of the New China Bookshops [where political posters were previously displayed and offered for sale]; very soon most poster scenes became anodyne and their images purely decorative. A fresh source of visual appeal was to be found instead on the billboards where advertisements for consumer goods and films at first appeared side by side with, and then replaced, images of Chairman Mao.9

The reintroduction of commercial advertising to China was announced indirectly in an editorial in a Shanghai newspaper in January 1979. It called for the restoration of advertising in China. The writer conceded that advertising had garnered a bad name for itself because of its association with deception, excessive boasting, and half-truths, but that its managed reintroduction into China would provide the same benefits it had in capitalist countries:

[I]n China during the interval in a sports programme broadcast on television, viewers had no choice "other than to rest for a moment…. I think this is an enormous waste of the screen. I have heard that in other countries the evening period between 7 and 9 p.m. is 'golden time' during which the viewing rate is highest. Inserting commercials into this time period obtains effective results and high prices."10

The editorial argued that the larger economic benefits of advertising would actually support China's socialist program by further linking consumers with producers.

Immediately after the publication of the editorial, advertising for both consumer and industrial products began to appear in the newspapers of large cities. As China sought to justify the reintroduction of something that it had previously eschewed, it made links to the advertising history of ancient Egypt and China's classical past. The direct borrowing of advertising from Western capitalistic societies was played down.

Government statements linked advertising to goals of the Chinese state and emphasized the role it would play in economic development. Professor Randall Stross notes irony in the fact that Chinese advocates of advertising used many of the same arguments for advertising that Western critics use against it, namely: (1) advertising stimulates the desire to consume, (2) advertising converts latent desire into buying behavior, (3) advertising helps expand sales, (4) advertising causes workers to work harder and produce more in order to earn the money to purchase advertised products, and (5) advertising creates demand. These connections of advertising to increased production and consumption were seen as benefiting China's attempt to develop further economically.11

4. Multinational Advertising Agencies Appear on the Scene

During the 1980s, multinational advertising agencies based in New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo saw the enormous opportunities that China offered. Early efforts at expansion into Mainland China were typically directed from Hong Kong, but offices were soon opened in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and other large Chinese cities. Today, Shanghai is the hub of Chinese advertising, but many of the multinational agencies have offices throughout Mainland China.

The foreign companies were first required to operate in China as joint ventures with Chinese agencies. This typically resulted in the amalgamation of the ultra-sophisticated global agencies with local agencies that had strong on-the-ground connections. The standard and quality of advertising produced in China quickly achieved world-class standards. Today, advertising in China compares favorably to advertising in New York, São Paulo, Milan, and other centers of cutting-edge advertising.

China abandoned the requirement that multinational agencies based in other countries operate as joint ventures with Chinese agencies in 2005.12 Multinational agencies may now operate as foreign-owned corporations and repatriate profits easily. Many have elected to maintain the networks afforded by their local connections.

In addition to hosting branches of large global advertising agencies, China now boasts hundreds of local agencies that serve smaller cities and rural areas of China. These agencies produce advertising for regional newspapers, specialized magazines, and local radio and television stations. Their advertisements often have lower production values than the multinationals. These home-grown agencies function similarly to local agencies in, say, Des Moines, Tucson, or Birmingham.

Photo of Office Interior
Fig. 14.14 The Interior of the JWT Office in Shanghai in 2007 [Source]

Multinational agencies operating in China have their own distinctive features. First, the majority of employees are Chinese nationals except for a few people in top management positions. This means that those who actually produce the advertising are native speakers of the language and are familiar with cultural traditions. There may also be some Chinese-speaking personnel from other countries. However, most employees are under 35 years old since older people would have grown up under a vastly different political, economic, and educational system.

Second, most people who work in these agencies speak both Chinese and English, with English being the administrative language at the top level and also a requirement to communicate with other offices of the global agency. Most of the non-Chinese know enough spoken Chinese for practical work situations, although few have mastered the complexities of Chinese writing.

Third, many offices are arranged differently from offices in other parts of the world. At least one of the large multinational agencies hired a Feng Shui specialist to design offices where most desks are located in a large interior space with low dividers and few right angles (see Figure 14.14).

5. The Context of Advertising in China

The Communist Party of the PRC continues to look upon advertising with some suspicion. After all, advertising promotes and glorifies both capitalism and consumption. Although both socialism and capitalism coexist in modern China, the booming commercial market is still perceived as a novelty in Chinese society and politics.

Advertising produced by multinational agencies for global brands frequently encounters strong feelings and attitudes on the part of the Chinese government and/or ordinary citizens. For example, the American coffee company, Starbucks, operates a coffee house within the walls of the Forbidden City (the former imperial palace in Beijing). Recently, a consumer-based movement that operates via the Internet has demanded an end to such foreign encroachment into one of China's most historic sites. Organizers complain of both foreign imperialism on a commercial level (because of the shop's location) and a cultural level (because it is coffee, not tea, on offer). This frequently uneasy relationship between the indigenous and the foreign is reflected within the walls of the Forbidden City where Chairman Mao's portrait hangs and where Starbucks operates.

Photo of Mao's Portrait
Fig. 14.15 This Portrait of Chairman Mao
Hangs over an Entrance to the Forbidden City

Photo of Starbucks
Fig. 14.16 Starbucks in the Forbidden City [Source]

For outsiders looking at advertising in China, perhaps its most distinctive feature is the degree of government oversight. Stories of government censorship of news, advertising, and the Internet are legendary abroad. However, when looked at from the practical point of view of those producing advertising, these controls are indeed limiting but they do not make advertising impossible. Rather, many appear to be expressions of the government's interest in the public welfare, truth in advertising, and national stability.

6. Miscommunication across Cultural and Linguistic Barriers

Read an overview of the Chinese language.
Cross-cultural misunderstandings and foreign language trip-ups form an inevitable part of doing business abroad. For example, an amusing list of foreigners' mistakes in English circulates on the Internet, reminding readers how easy it is to miscommunicate. The list includes a sign that hangs in an Acapulco hotel: "The manager has personally passed all the water served here."13 These mistakes may be funny, but when they occur in the language of marketing and advertising, they can be costly. For example, Nova, the name of a Chevrolet car turned out to be uncomfortably close to the Spanish no va ("it doesn't go"). Advertisements produced by multinational advertising agencies for China have had their share of such misunderstandings. The problems caused by such linguistic faux pas can change the fortunes of a brand overnight. Some examples include:

Toyota. In the 1980s, when Toyota launched in China, it used an advertising campaign based on a Chinese proverb: "When you drive your cart into the mountains, you will always find a road out." In the ad, the proverb changed to "Where there's a road, you'll find a Toyota." Chinese censors took exception to the commercial on these grounds: "China has roads but there are not necessarily Toyotas on them. The roads in other countries do not necessarily have them either."14

In 2003, Toyota had trouble with its advertising again. The company produced an ad for its Prado Land Cruiser in which a stone lion (a symbol of China) salutes the Japanese vehicle. The ad fired up the long-standing animosities and competition that exist between China and Japan. In addition, Prado was translated into Chinese in such way as to suggest rule by force, tyranny, and domination. These cultural and linguistic innuendoes were not well received in China.

Print Ad for Prado
Fig. 14.17 This Ad Was Not Well Received in China [Source]

Nike. In 2004, Nike produced a 90-second spot that aired in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the US. The ad featured LeBron James of the NBA defeating an elderly Chinese martial arts master, a pair of dragons, and two legendary Chinese goddesses in a simulated videogame. The Chinese State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television ordered the commercial banned because it violated "regulations that mandate that all advertisements in China should uphold national dignity and interest and respect for the motherland's culture."15

Watch the Clip for Nike
Fig. 14.18 This Nike Commercial Was Banned in China [Source]

Hear the anthem and a radio story about the commercial.
Wrigley. In 2007, the Wm. Wrigley, Jr., Company broadcast a commercial in Russia that included the Chinese national anthem, "The March of the Volunteers." The ad violated the Chinese law prohibiting advertisements from using any Chinese national emblems, including the anthem. Although this ad aired on Russian television, the Chinese ambassador protested. Both the client and the agency apologized and offered free promotional advertising for China on Russian television.16

7. Governmental Regulation of Advertising

It is true that advertising is censored in China, but it is also true that it is censored in other countries like the US, where an industry board, the National Advertising Review Board, self-regulates by setting certain standards which advertising must meet. In addition, network television and other media outlets have their own standards and sometimes refuse to run a particular advertisement for one reason or another. In China, advertising, rather than being self-regulated or censored by media outlets, is reviewed by the government.

In practice the situation is quite complex. Advertising that will appear on the national network, CCTV, is reviewed by Beijing and, if approved, airs all over the country. Otherwise, advertising that will appear on local stations must be approved by the respective local governments. This process can result in ads being approved for one city but not for another. However, the size of the audience in the larger cities makes it worthwhile to adjust commercials regionally.

Tom Doctoroff, head of advertising in greater China for JWT,17offers the following hands-on advice about succeeding with the censors. Here is his list of what to avoid:

Sex. No eroticism. No cleavage. No "bad men." No mornings after. No premarital titillation. (Come to think of it, we don't even see married couples in bed together.) No homosexuality. No condoms. No AIDS. No massage parlors. No sensual skin stroking. Belly buttons are vulgar.

"Unsafe" or "uncivilized" behavior. Good fathers and governments defend the welfare (i.e., safety) of sons and workers. So, no driving without a seatbelt. No jaywalking. No running on busy sidewalks. No blocking traffic. No playing on the roof. No rolling around on the grass of a public park. No spitting. No burping. (Yawning is allowed but not advised.) No dogs on the run. No food-contaminating civet cats.

Disrespecting the political hierarchy—i.e., groups being "led" by anything other than the military or the CCP. (Pizza Hut was forced to delete a kid standing on a desk extolling the taste of the "Edge" pizza. The ten-year-old, unwittingly, was an "alternative center of authority.") Well-behaved crowds, on the other hand, are fine. They reinforce national unity. Having fun with any political figure—Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu (Jin Tao), Wen (Jai Bao), the local Party secretary, "good" emperors, and any Party member—is, of course, strictly forbidden.

Disrespecting the social hierarchy. Father is always smarter than son. Teacher is always smarter than student. Elder brother is always smarter than younger brother. Senior citizens are always the wisest of all, save the emperor (or Party leader). Round-faced children are obedient disciples of all things Chinese.

Affronts to China. [The Chinese] are nationalistic. Any slight, perceived or real, elicits howls of righteous indignation. National symbols—dragons, phoenixes, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen, Ne Zha, Kung Fu masters (Nike got burned here), and Sinopec—are sacrosanct. Furthermore, when relevant, failure to explicitly recognize China's greatness is risky.

Affronts to competitive products. Comparison advertising—e.g., "The Pepsi Challenge"—is unambiguously illegal, so do not even try. You cannot even have Sprite's colors (yellow and green) next to a 7-Up cart.

Affronts to neighborhood pharmacists. Over-the-counter drugs are highly regulated due to concerns for: (a) public welfare (older, less advertising-savvy consumers are the primary market target) as well as (b) the industry's fossilized state-owned enterprises and distribution arms. You cannot show doctors. You cannot show patients. You cannot show symptoms. You cannot show cures….18

The practical significance of such strictures is illustrated by the attempt to remake a popular Pepsi commercial for Chinese audiences. The original commercial that aired in the West starred Michael J. Fox desperately trying to find a Diet Pepsi. Many things in the original commercial that had been taken for granted in the West simply did not conform to Chinese regulations.

Watch the Clip for Pepsi
Fig. 14.19 This Pepsi Commercial Aired in the West [Source]

Watch the Chinese Clip for Pepsi
Fig. 14.20 The Chinese Re-Make of the Pepsi Commercial from Figure 14.19 [ENG] [Source]

The censors disallowed the use of the fire escape because it should be used only in emergencies. They required the actor to use the crosswalk rather than cross the street in the middle of the block. They did not like the actor jumping over a moving car nor the presence of a motorcycle gang in the street. The Chinese version of the commercial ingeniously adapts the same storyline to local requirements. It is worth noting that the restrictions placed on the commercial have to do with behaving properly, following rules, and not showing behaviors that could be dangerous or unsafe.

8. Issues Associated with the Chinese Language

Beijing officials have initiated regulations concerning the proper translation of Chinese into English in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.
The nature of the Chinese language, whose writing system is based on ideographs rather than an alphabet, poses certain issues that advertisers must attend to carefully. Ideographs provide significant opportunities for other "mistakes" in communication, as well as powerful opportunities to bolster a brand's image not found in alphabetic languages.

Professors Fengru Li and Nader Shooshtari explain some of these special issues associated with Chinese:

Chinese writing, unlike Western alphabets, is not based on a correspondence with linguistic sounds, but it is rooted in the picturing of words and concepts…. Businesses who advertise in China using Chinese characters must pay special attention to the Chinese reception of their ideographic codes…. The same brand names, when translated into Chinese phonetically as close as possible to the original pronunciations, often acquire other meanings commonly associated with the sounds—meanings that may or may not necessarily be conductive to the promotion of the brands.

The transliteration of "Mercedes Benz" and "BMW" as "Ben chi" and "Bao ma" are two of the best examples that are not only phonologically close to the original sound of a non-Chinese brand name, but also are visually appealing to the Chinese customer, eliciting the image of the horse, a metaphor for the automobile.

"Ben chi," the Chinese transliteration of "Benz," is represented by a double syllable Chinese ideographic word…. Ben and chi are synonyms, both meaning "run fast," "dashing steed." Since the … [basic root on which the Chinese character for chi] … means "horse," the double-syllable word "ben chi" is naturally understood as "gallop." The connection is thus made between the brand name in Chinese, i.e., the metaphorical horse and the product, i.e., the car….19

Characters of Mercedes
Fig. 14.21 This Direct Translation of Mercedes into Chinese
Falls Short of Conveying Meaning through Images

The translation of "BMW" into "Bao Ma" … achieves exactly the same effect. … [The character pronounced as "bao"] means "treasure," "endearment," or "sweetie."… [The other character pronounced as "ma"], "a house full of valuables," lends luxurious quality to a BMW "horse."

Characters of BMW Explained
Fig. 14.22 This Translation of BMW in Chinese Characters
Takes Advantage of the Characters' Base Meaning

… Marlboro… has been marked in China for decades in its three-character-Chinese name, "Wan bao lu," [which] means "a road paved with ten thousand treasures" or "a road paved that leads to ten thousand treasures." Its favorable imagery is so profoundly provoked by the ideographic nature of the Chinese language, that the logical link between smoking and health hazards is thus buried.20

Characters of Marlboro Explained
Fig. 14.23 This Translation of Marlboro in Chinese Characters
Takes Advantage of the Characters' Base Meaning

Doctoroff argues that some foreign companies lose the opportunity to embellish their brand name in Chinese by looking only for Chinese characters that sound like the brand name in the original language. According to him, the most successful examples sound similar to their English names and reflect the product's benefits or personality through the Chinese characters selected. Two famous examples are "Ke-kou-ke-le" for Coca-Cola, which roughly means "makes mouth happy," and "Bai-shi-ke-le" for Pepsi, which means "a hundred joys." His table gives further examples, some of which are not easy to understand without knowing Chinese.

Table 1: Some Examples of Foreign Brand Names Rendered in Chinese21


Chinese Pinyin



bao ma

treasure horse


ping guo*


Mercedes Benz

ben chi

racing gallop


bai an ju

"hundred safety" home


nai ke


Rejoice (shampoo)

piao rou

floating softness

Head & Shoulders

hai fei si

flying silk of the sea


xue bi

emerald snow


qi xi

seven happiness


ken de ji



nuo ji ya



mai dang lao


* No phonetic similarity
** No semantic relevance and, hence, a lost opportunity

There are also issues associated with importing Chinese names and concepts into other languages. For example, the Chinese word for "fragrant" is pronounced fang. However, the Chinese lipstick brand Fang Fang is an awkward name for lipstick in English. Similarly, the brand of playing cards pronounced syllable by syllable in Chinese as ma xi pu ke becomes Maxipuke when transliterated in English.22

9. Diamond Rings in China

The majority of commercials produced by multinational advertising agencies in China are carefully researched and negotiated so that problems of language, culture, or politics do not arise. An example of an extraordinarily successful advertising is the work done by the JWT agency in Shanghai for Diamond Trading Company (DTC).

Diamonds were rare in China until the early 1990s. At weddings, it had been customary for brides to wear the traditional color of red signifying good fortune and happiness and for the parents to give gifts of gold or jade to the bride and groom. Now, it is estimated that 40 percent of Chinese brides23 receive diamond engagement or wedding rings, and an elaborate wedding includes both the traditional red dress and the white wedding dress borrowed from the West.

Powerful advertising is the key to how such a cultural change occurred so rapidly in China. Initial research helped DTC and its advertising agency, JWT, understand the cultural base from which they would work, especially the idea that marriage should create an everlasting bond according to Chinese tradition. The team considered alternative positionings for diamonds (e.g., diamonds as luxury items versus diamonds as symbols of love). The diamond as a symbol of love was selected as the initial positioning for the Chinese market. The goal was to reach a very wide market by using advertising to promote the idea that a diamond ring at marriage signifies undying love. The commercials produced by JWT for DTC have used this strategy, but have done so in diverse and innovative ways.

One spot tells a romantic story in which a man and woman are tied together with a red string. This refers to an ancient story about the gods who had dolls representing the people on earth and joined these dolls with red strings, indicating that they are intended for one another. The red string is brought into this modern fairy tale, but alongside it comes the diamond ring. The commercial thus makes a strong link between destiny, love, and diamonds.

Watch the Clip for DTC
Fig. 14.24 This DTC Commercial Taps Chinese Sentiments
about Love and Marriage
[ENG] [Source]

Another makes the link between true, undying love and diamonds in another way. A man and woman stand by a pool where the light of the moon is reflected. In order to show his love for her, he dives into the pool so that he can catch the moon for her. When he surfaces, he holds a diamond ring in which the moon's light is reflected. This is another highly romanticized version, but it is appropriate for the creative strategy that positions diamonds as symbols of love.

Watch the Clip for DTC
Fig. 14.25 This Commercial for DTC Plays to a Fantasy about True Love [ENG] [Source]

Read about Chinese marriage customs.
Today diamonds are expanding beyond their primary associations with marriage. Some older couples for whom diamonds were not available in the past acquire diamonds, often on an anniversary. Among affluent consumers the diamond is rapidly becoming a symbol of luxury and prestige. DTC shows how advertising with a clear strategy and a specific target can be used to effect cultural transformations in consumption.

10. Henry Ford in China24

Read about the social institutions collectively referred to as Fordism.
Henry Ford's invention of efficient mass production using the moving assembly line to lower costs is firmly entrenched as practice in modern China. Most Chinese know about Ford because his contribution to mass production is a part of the standard school curriculum, which omits the negative and dehumanizing associations with monotonous factory work often made in the West.

Today, Ford's other contribution—the mass-produced automobile—is also well-known in China. However, instead of being advertised as an American car (which suggests gas guzzling), Ford is positioned as an international brand with European design and technology. Print and TV images focus on the car's sleek lines, and copy refers to state-of-the-art engineering and local production.

The commercials that JWT-Shanghai has produced to support this position rival the most creative automotive commercials in other countries. However, the spots are produced with governmental restrictions in mind: no potentially dangerous behavior that people might imitate (e.g., driving stunts in cities) and no claims that Ford is the best (because the competition makes good cars, too). When the agency comes up with an executional idea, it is shown to the government regulators in storyboard, and necessary changes are made before the commercial is shot.

The Ford Focus commercial in Figure 14.26 shows young people having a good time driving a Ford—so good a time, in fact, that they are able to style their hair with it. However, note that there is no other traffic on the streets. The car is shown on closed roads so as not to present any danger to drivers or pedestrians.

Watch the Clip for Ford
Fig. 14.26 Ford Is Positioned as a Trendy, Youthful, and Exciting Car [ENG] [Source]

The commercial in Figure 14.27 echoes similar themes. The advertising is playful, but potentially harmful maneuvers are avoided. Car commercials often show a male driver, and models are always pan-Asian if not specifically Chinese. Ford commercials never show children in them because it would not be prudent to have a child in a spinning car. Also, Ford avoids portraying parenthood in the commercials to emphasize the brand's associations with youth and excitement.

Watch the Clip for Ford
Fig. 14.27 Ford Commercials in China Emphasize (Cautious) Excitement [Source]

The commercial in Figure 14.28 draws creative inspiration from Yamakasi, a French group that practices street stunts and acrobatics. Censors required the action to take place outside the city so as not to encourage people to imitate the cat-and-mouse game in that environment. This commercial makes a strong link between Ford and exciting behavior.

Watch the Clip for Ford
Fig.14.28 This Ford Commercial Draws Inspiration from Yamakasi [ENG] [Source]

11. The Colonel in China—Taking Kentucky out of KFC

Kentucky Fried Chicken exists in China but only under the name KFC. It does not sell the usual fare for which it is famous in America, but rather its specialty is Chinese-style fast food. The food can be eaten in the restaurant or ordered "to go," but its innovativeness is in the fast food concept, rather than in the specific type of food served. By using the name KFC, the company has remade itself as a Chinese fast-food restaurant. The Colonel still appears on signs and advertising materials, but Kentucky is gone and the Americanness of the product is minimized.

The advertising produced by the Ogilvy & Mather agency for KFC is as innovative as the product. Bringing the concepts of family and shared food into its imagery, they have produced a campaign that worked much like mini-soap operas several years earlier. The initial commercial introduces a large family—parents, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Successive commercials were built around each of these people—each of whom decides to buy KFC food and bring it home to the family. The commercials feature the reasons why all the family members find KFC a good choice and end with the family eating together.

Chart of the KFC Family
Fig. 14.29 TV Soap Opera Featuring KFC Family [Source]

Within the television commercial format, this sequence of commercials breaks out of the traditional format. By its unusual format of several linked commercials, the KFC message is repeated, noticed, and perhaps better remembered. Although the "soap opera" format is no longer used today it had considerable success in generating consumer interest. And KFC still was "part of Chinese life" in later ones as shown below:

Watch the Clip for KFC
Fig.14.30 KFC Was Still a Family Experience in Later Commercials in 2006 [ENG] [Source]

12. Chinese Consumers

Doctoroff identifies three groups of consumers in modern China: (1) the Chinese middle class, consisting of 100 million people (expected to number 200 million by 2010), who have enough disposable income to purchase non-essential goods, (2) the urban mass market, another 400 million people, who participate to some degree in China's commercial economy, and (3) the rural mass, 700-800 million consumers who have extremely limited means and are not yet a significant part of modern China's consumer economy.

The third group, the rural mass, is largely ignored by marketers and advertisers because they have so little money to spend. People in this group live on the equivalent of a few dollars a day. However, the other two groups are the focus of advertising and marketing attention, but they are vastly different from another in income and outlook. Doctoroff writes:

[T]here are two Chinas, one extraordinarily optimistic and the other much less so. The lucky 8 percent whose lives have been transformed by the economic boom of the '90s are progress-driven and aspirational. This Chinese middle class plan their futures meticulously—they are fully cognizant that it's a jungle out there. They seek a competitive advantage in the game of life. Dazed yet titillated, they are driven by conflicting needs to protect—through sweat and toil—their achievements, and to project new status in an ultra-regimented and badge-conscious society. The middle class is not naive. However, they believe—they have faith—that the future is bright.

The urban mass, on the other hand, has not directly benefited from the economic restructuring of the past two decades. In fact, many of them have borne its brunt. Incomes at the top have skyrocketed. But the rest of the population has moved forward marginally, if at all. Layoffs triggered by the collapse of walking-dead state-owned enterprises are feared by every blue-collar worker. Prices have risen as subsidies on daily essentials evaporate. Things are not (yet) desperate; the masses are not incapacitated by learned helplessness. However, they are much more pessimistic about the future than their wealthier comrades.25

13. Media Outlets for Advertising in China26

Contemporary China offers the same diversity of media found in Western countries. Advertisements appear in newspapers, magazines, billboards, buses, riverboats, radio, television, and the Internet. Additionally, the same innovative brand environments (e.g., shops featuring only a single brand, sponsorship of major athletic events and concerts, viral marketing, etc.) form the available conglomerate of outlets for advertising and marketing communications in China.

Television presents an especially complex situation. There is only a single national network, CCTV, which began in 1958, and today offers 16 channels, 24 hours a day, everyday. Channel 1, which is the single channel broadcast all over the country, features mostly comedies and soap operas. Every regional station must reserve a few channels for this national network.

Commercials appear on both CCTV (where they reach a national audience) and local stations (where they reach regional audiences). All commercials must be approved by censors before they appear on television. National censors can only approve those shown on the CCTV national network. Otherwise, local censors must approve commercials for stations within their region. Foreign programming is not allowed during prime-time hours, but advertising for both domestic and imported products is allowed.

In addition to TV, Internet advertising reaches a wide audience in China. The government restricts access to some sites (e.g., anti-government sites, pornographic sites, etc.). When a restricted URL is typed into a web browser, it is blocked so that the site will not load. Nonetheless, the Internet (and Internet advertising) continues to bring the outside world to the awareness of many Chinese people.

14. Conclusion

The case of China is essential for understanding the global nature of contemporary advertising. First, it shows that the presumed link between advertising and a liberal democratic society is not essential. China has invented a new way to have both advertising and socialism. Using the yardstick of "the proof is in the pudding," the success of advertising and commercialism in modern China shows that Western models are not the only ones in which advertising can play a key cultural and economic role. Second, it shows that government regulation can coexist with creative and effective advertising. Rather than making advertising bland, Chinese government restrictions pose creative challenges within which advertising messages need to be expressed.


Coca-Cola Billboard "It's up to you to enjoy yourself. Dazzling talent show."

Hygiene Poster "Wash clothes and body regularly, maintain cleanliness, for good health," 1953.

Cultural Revolution Poster "Hold high the banner of Mao Zedong. Thought to wage the great Cultural Revolution to the end—Revolution is no crime, to rebel is justified."

Satellite Poster "Long live the victory of Mao Zedong Thought! Warmly hail the successful launch of our country's first man-made earth satellite!"

Family Planning Poster "Carry Out Family Planning, Implement the Basic National Policy."

Avian Flu Poster "How to prevent avian flu?"

Pepsi Commercial Woman 1: Hello, I am the new neighbor, do you have Pepsi?
Man: Yes
Man: Yes! (Cheering)
Man: Uh… will other drinks do?
Woman 1: It's all right if you don't have it.
Man: I have! Just a moment!
(Man running and music)
Woman 1: Are you all right?
Man: I am fine. Here is your Pepsi. (Smiling)
(Knocking at the door)
Woman 2: Do you still have Pepsi?
Man: Yes, just a moment.
Caption: Pepsi—the choice of a new generation!

DTC Commercial VO: Two Hearts Tied Together, Forever.
VO: A Diamond Is Forever.

DTC Commercial Woman: What a beautiful moon it is!
Man: Do you like it? I will get it for you.
VO: Because of you, nothing is impossible!
VO: The Diamond Wedding Ring.
VO: A Diamond Is Forever.

Ford Commercial VO: My excitement, my freedom.
VO: Ford Focus Five Doors launches with passion.
VO: Make Everyday Exciting.

Ford Commercial VO: It's your turn.
VO: I make the rules!
VO: Ford Focus 2Box
Caption: 2007 Ford Focus 2box.
VO: Make Every Day Exciting

KFC Commercial (Kids singing and dancing): two tigers, running fast, running fast…
(Door bell ringing)
Jia Ning (mom): Hey, you are late.
Friend 1: You are cooking, right? Let me help.
Friend 2: Me too! Me too!
Mom: No need, no need. Just enjoy yourselves!
Li Jie (dad): It is time to eat!
Everybody: Wow! Family bucket!
VO: When it is time for happy gathering, just buy KFC family bucket! Delicious meal for you to enjoy freely! Indulge yourself in the happiness of gathering! Great price at ¥ 59.
Caption: Since having KFC, life tastes good!
VO: Now if you buy KFC [family bucket], you have the chance to win free delicious meals!
Caption: If you buy KFC family bucket now, you have the chance to win free delicious meals!


1 Although Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore may be considered "Chinese" from a cultural point of view, the name "China" refers specifically to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in this unit.

2 Ellen J. Laing, Selling Happiness (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004), 2.

3 The cheungsam symbolized the transition to women's rights and freedom in its construction and design.

4 The book's subtitle was The Experiences—Some Happy, Some Sad of an American in China, and What They Taught Him. Originally published by Harper and Brothers Publishers (New York) and reissued by EastBridge (Norwalk, CT) in 2003.

5 Crow, 175.

6 Jeremy Tunstall, The Advertising Man (London: Routledge, 1964), 35. Quoted in Jian Wang, Foreign Advertising in China: Becoming Global, Becoming Local (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 2000), 35.

7 Sun Yat-sen quoted on Stefan Landsberger's website, (accessed April 28, 2007).

8 Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald, "Introducing Posters of China's Cultural Revolution," in Picturing Power in the People's Republic of China, eds. Evans and Donald, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 2.

9 John Gittings, "Excess and Enthusiasm," in Picturing Power in the People's Republic of China, eds. Evans and Donald, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 29.

10 Ding Yunpeng, "Wei guanggao zhengming" ("Restoring the Good Name of Advertising"), Wenhuibao, January 14, 1979. Quoted in Randall Stross, "The Return of Advertising in China: A Survey of the Ideological Reversal," The China Quarterly 123 (September 1990), 485-502.

11 Stross, 48.

12 Frederik Balfour and David Kiley, "China Unchains Ad Agencies," Business Week, April 25, 2005.

13 Robert E. Hartwell, "Foreign Signs" (accessed July 2, 2007).

14 Chinese official response, quoted in Stross, 497-498.

15 Xinhua News Agency, "Nike Apologizes to Chinese for TV Commercial," Xinhua News Agency (December 9, 2004). Quoted in Fengru Li and Nader H. Shooshtari, "Multinational Corporations' Controversial Ad Campaigns in China—Lessons from Nike and Toyota," Advertising & Society Review 8, no. 11 (2007).

16 Guo Qiang, "Controversial Ad Causes Backlash," China Daily, January 12, 2007.

17 The advertising agency formerly known as J. Walter Thompson changed its name to JWT in 2005.

18 Tom Doctoroff, Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 208-209.

19 Li and Shooshtari.

20 Li and Shooshtari.

21 Doctoroff, 201.

22 Andy Chuang, "Chinese to English Translation Blunders" (accessed July 2, 2007).

23 In the 25 largest cities of China.

24 Danielle Godbier and Roy Yao of JWT-Shanghai provided critical background for this section.

25 Doctoroff, 42-43.

26 This section is based on Noreen O'Leary's article, "CCTV: One Network, 1.2 Billion Viewers," on Adweek.Com, February 5, 2007.

Media Credits

Fig. 14.1 Courtesy Xiaming of, some rights reserved.

Fig. 14.2 Lin Yan and Huang Yansheng, "Zhongguo dianpu huangzi yanjiu," Zhongguo lishi bowuguan guankan 2 (1995): fig. 7.

Fig. 14.3 Courtesy See Great World (Entertainment Center).

Fig. 14.4 J. W. Sanger, Advertising Methods in Japan, China and the Philippines (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office,1921), 74.

Fig. 14.5 Song Jialin, Lao yuefenpai (Shanghai: Shanghai huabao chubanshe, 1997), 127.

Fig. 14.6 Copyright and courtesy Ref: OR029.

Fig. 14.7 Hang Zhiying / Ziying Studio, Calendar Poster for Anker Beer, 1920-30s. Collection of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

Fig. 14.8 Courtesy the IISH Stephen R. Landsberger Collection.

Fig. 14.9 Courtesy the IISH Stephen R. Landsberger Collection.

Fig. 14.10 Courtesy the IISH Stephen R. Landsberger Collection.

Fig. 14.11 Courtesy the IISH Stephen R. Landsberger Collection.

Fig. 14.12 Courtesy the IISH Stephen R. Landsberger Collection.

Fig. 14.13 Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, A Century of Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth Century China (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998). From Huntington Archive, Ohio State University.

Fig. 14.14 Courtesy JWT.

Fig. 14.15

Fig. 14.16 Courtesy Russell Belk.

Fig. 14.17 Fengru Li and Nader Shooshtari, "Multinational Corporations' Controversial Ad Campaigns in China," Advertising & Society Review 8, no. 1 (2007).

Fig. 14.18 Zhihong Gao, "The Evolution of Chinese Advertising Law: A Historical Review" Advertising & Society Review 8, no.1 (2007).

Fig. 14.19 From the author's collection.

Fig. 14.20 Courtesy Ogilvy & Mather.

Fig. 14.21 Adapted from Good Characters Inc.,

Fig. 14.22 Adapted from Good Characters Inc.,

Fig. 14.23 Adapted from Good Characters Inc.,

Fig. 14.24 Courtesy Ogilvy & Mather.

Fig. 14.25 Courtesy Ogilvy & Mather.

Fig. 14.26 Courtesy JWT.

Fig. 14.27 Courtesy JWT.

Fig. 14.28 Courtesy JWT.

Fig. 14.29 Courtesy Ogilvy & Mather.

Fig. 14.30 Courtesy Ogilvy & Mather.

William M. O'Barr

William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke's most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O'Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society—An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.