Brand New China: Advertising, Media and Commercial Culture

March 13, 2008

Jing Wang is professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her first book was an erudite study of the lore of stones in Chinese culture as reflected in traditional works of fiction such as the great 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber. She has also written on avant-garde fiction, on film and on popular culture in contemporary China. A study of advertising in China might seem a sharp departure from this already varied record, but in fact in Brand New China Wang uses the methodology and perspectives of cultural analysis to produce a detailed study of branding and advertising in China.

The Chinese love of colour, traditional cultural themes, calligraphy and wordplay all contributed to the development of a rich and attractive commercial and advertising art that flourished in China in the first half of the 20th century. In Maoist China, although people might retain a preference for a particular cigarette or regard the Shanghai Forever as a superior bicycle to the Tianjin Flying Pigeon, on the whole in that non-consumerist society, branding and advertising underwent a sharp decline. Creative energy migrated to other forms of artistic production. Political posters, for example, owed much in design, graphics and even themes to the advertising posters of earlier decades.

China's move to a market economy and its integration into the global market system was accompanied by a huge resurgence of advertising. The number of agencies in 2005 was an astounding 84,2. Most of these are local Chinese companies, but influential international names such as Saatchi and Saatchi and Ogilvy are well established in major Chinese cities.

Unsurprisingly, as Wang's fieldwork reveals, American branding theories and models have been very influential but an understanding of Chinese cultural references and associations remains absolutely necessary for effective campaigns. International brands have to learn to "go local". Nike made a mistake in releasing its "Chamber of Fear" commercial in China; its disrespectful portrayal of Chinese kung fu masters caused such offence that it was dropped.

In general, however, with the help of local partners or employees, multinationals have quickly became adept at exploiting the vernacular in image and language. Wang offers many examples of the adman's ingenuity in the use of local content.

Another problem for multinationals is consumer nationalism. While an obviously foreign brand may be attractive to some consumers and its products thought to be better made, more reliable or more elegant than local equivalents, other consumers wish to "buy Chinese". Wang shows that multinationals have used joint venture partnerships or careful branding and positioning to give Chinese consumers the impression that some of their products are "own brands".

Of course a market as large and varied as that of China cannot be considered as a single entity. Advertisers must think about geographic, demographic and class segmentation before they position the brand and product. Low-end mobile phones, marketed to rural users as robust and simple to use, would not be acceptable to premium users such as the Shanghai yuppies who want the latest designs and are happy to upgrade regularly.

Wang's attitude to contemporary advertising culture is upbeat. The social consequences of building an acquisitive society and the impact of converting Chinese consumers to throwaway habits do not lie within her remit. She writes of China as "struggling not to become a mirror image of the United States" but on the whole sees the introduction of Western marketing techniques as providing opportunities for cross-fertilisation. I take the more pessimistic view that globalisation has initiated a homogenising process in Chinese commercial art, facilitating the introduction of twee pop images and icons and producing visuals that, while sometimes adapted to the local market, lack roots in traditional craftsmanship and aesthetics.

Wang's rigorous academic study would have been enlivened and given more appeal by a wide selection of colour reproductions of advertisements. In fact, presumably due to constraints of cost, it contains only a few black-and-white illustrations. However, the book is original, well researched and based on a wide-ranging appreciation of both popular and literary Chinese culture. It will be of interest to serious students and practitioners of marketing in China.

Brand New China: Advertising, Media and Commercial Culture

By Jing Wang
Harvard University Press
ISBN 9780674026803
Published 28 February 2008

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