In July, Sina.com reported that Hong Yonghui, the board director of the Chinese branch of the international advertising agency TBWA expressed “regret and disappointment” over a series of ads prepared by the agency for Amnesty International’s “After the Olympics” campaign to draw attention to human rights in China. (The ads were not reproduced on Sina.com, and their content was not described except that it was “insulting China.”) Hong said this had been a pro bono action by someone at the Paris office and had not been approved by the company, but even so, the Paris branch had to be held responsible.
Today, Sina.com reports that TWBA (Advertising Age magazine’s ‘Global Agency Network of the Year’ whose selling line is “Disruptive Ideas”) and two other agencies — Saatchi and DDB — have apologized for the ads that have “aroused the rage of netizens in the country,” and the Cannes Festival withdrew (!) the Bronze Lion it had awarded TWBA for the ads. This was after “relevant government organs” had “sternly expressed their strong dissatisfaction, anger, and protest” against the ads to the three agencies and demanded an apology and a promise that, in the future, “such problems of hostility to China or unfriendliness towards the Chinese people” (!) will not recur. The China Advertising Association had, equally sternly, demanded that the Cannes organisers withdraw the prize. In August, TBWA’s global CEO officially apologised to the Chinese government and assured it that the company would ensure not only that the ads not be aired anywhere in the world, but also that “no advertising unfriendly to China be produced or broadcast anywhere in the world” (保证在全球范围内不会再出现对中国不友好的广告作品的制作和传播) and that, from now on, all copy produced by local branches would have to be approved by the “global creative inspector” (全球创意总监). In a 20 September article in The Wall Street Journal, he confirmed this and added that “Had TBWA management known about this ad, not only would the ad not have been entered into an award show, but it would not have been produced.” DDB also apologised and said that they would, in the future, refrain from producing political advertising. Saatchi apologised too, but apparently made no promises.
Curiously, The Wall Street Journal took a rather cool stand: it highlighted that more and more advertising giants are running into trouble because they are simultaneously working for opposing causes (e.g. tobbaco companies and anti-smoking campaigns). TBWA, in particular, had prepared an ad campaign for Adidas that “focused on Chinese pride, showing Chinese athletes supported by throngs of fans.”
But this, of course, is a whole new paradigm. These ads were not inadvertently offensive to China: they were political ads whose purpose was to criticize the Chinese government. (They were also, indeed, crude and stupid, which makes one wonder why on earth they got the Bronze Lion, but that’s neither here nor there.) Two of the three companies agreed not do produce such ads any more, and one promised to institute an internal censorship system to ensure this. What this means is that not only media inside, but also outside China are beginning to accept self-censorship when it comes to coverage of China.