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  • The Evolution of Chinese Advertising Law: A Historical Review
  • Zhihong Gao (bio)
Abstract

This paper reviews the historical development of Chinese advertising law in its political and economic context, with three advertising statutes, Provisional Regulations on the Administration of Advertising of 1982, Regulations on the Administration of Advertising of 1987, and Advertising Law of 1994, as the foci of discussion. It concludes that the development of Chinese advertising law making closely reflects the experience of China in its transition from an underdeveloped socialist state to a market economy paired with authoritarian politics.

The rapid growth of Chinese advertising in recent years has captured the interest of Western advertising professionals, yet inadequate attention has been given to the unique historical context in which the Chinese institution has been evolving. As a result, foreign advertisers have been frequently taken back by their Chinese experience. For instance,

In late 2003, Toyota outraged the Chinese consumers by one of its print ads, in which two stone lions, seen as a symbol of China, bow to and salute a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado SUV).1 The Japanese automaker quickly pulled the ad and, two months later, dropped Saatchi & Saatchi as its creative agency on the Land Cruiser and Prado sport utility vehicle accounts.2


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Toyota Land Cruiser Prado SUV

In September 2004, Nippon Paint ran into a similar debacle in China: An ad created by its agency, Leo Burnett Shanghai Advertising, was published in International Advertising, showing a freshly-painted pillar with a twining dragon which ends up in a coil at the bottom because it is unable to keep its grip.3 Both the agency and the magazine had to apologize.


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Nippon Paint

In late 2004, the Chinese government banned a Nike commercial created by Wieden & Kennedy, in which American basketball player LeBron James is shown defeating a kung-fu master and two Chinese women.4 Nike quickly issued its apology.

Nike TV commercial with LeBron James

These widely publicized incidents vividly demonstrate the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese advertising market. Meanwhile, they also highlight the insensitivity among Western advertising professionals toward Chinese politics and culture. So, rather than feeling puzzled by the outcome of these cases and decrying the unpredictable nature of Chinese advertising regulation, it is important to take a closer look at Chinese history so that lessons can be learned from the past to prevent future mistakes.

Law is a human institution and a system of social choice, “one in which government provides for the allocation of resources … and the structuring of social relationships”.5 The key force behind such a system of social choice is cultural beliefs and values, which change over time, leading to the evolution of law.6 The same can be said about Chinese advertising law, whose development in the last two decades closely mirrors the contradictions embedded in the Chinese society in its transition from an underdeveloped socialist state to a market economy paired with authoritarian politics.

This paper reviews the historical development of Chinese advertising law in its political and economic context, with three Chinese advertising statutes, Provisional Regulations on the Administration of Advertising of 1982, Regulations on the Administration of Advertising of 1987, and Advertising Law of 1994, as the foci of discussion. It aims to trace and outline the strong linkage between Chinese advertising law and the larger political and economic environment. More importantly, it intends to examine how the Chinese society has been transforming in the last two decades and how such transformation has impacted the development of advertising law.

Contemporary Chinese Culture and Its Ideological Components

“The mirror,” a popular metaphor in the field of advertising, accurately describes the relationship between law and society. Advertising law is conditioned by its social context and resorts to “communitarian values”7 as its ideological compass. Meanwhile, cultural values are not static but change over time. This is particularly true today, when globalization is actively...

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