Advertising in China

Every visitor to China will have seen innumerable slogans and posters put up to exhort citizens to study Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents Importantthought” (三个代表重要思想)or Hu Jintao’s “Eight Honourables and Eight Shamefuls” (八荣八耻), not to spit, to be filial, or to be patriotic. These slogans, along with others on family planning or taxes, no longer just appear on walls: they are aired, for example, as advertising inserts in between episodes of popular kungfu movies shown on long-distance buses, right next to mobile phone ads. Radio talk show hosts weave them creatively into their banter: for example, the hosts of a show I heard on Hangzhou’s Traffic Radio chatted about the local dialect and then concluded that it was best to ask some old residents, and while they were at it, noted that “we should care for the elderly, that’s a traditional Chinese virtue” – and also one favoured by the Party. When slogans do appear on billboards, their design and background uses the same landscapes and dancing women as the advertisements of travel agencies.

Baby food advertisement? No: the Pinghu City Family Planning Department’s slogan says “Control Population Quantity, Improve Population Quality” (2006)

Instead of disappearing along with the Marxist ideology as they did in the Soviet Union, these slogans have multiplied, adapted to the times, and been harnessed by a variety of government bodies as well as by private advertisers. The selling line of Huiquan Beer, a German-Chinese joint venture product popular in Fujian Province, runs “祖国万岁 惠泉长流” (May the Fatherland live long! May Huiquan flow forever!) A pop-up Internet advertisement for Samsung’s new MP3/MP4 player – a product for teenagers! – in 2006 used the selling line “The Chinese People’s Beloved Company, A Company Contributing to Chinese Society”.[1] Dairy company Yili’s posters with the text “做好牛,产好奶” (Be good cows, produce good milk), apparently a mild spoof on propaganda slogans like “Be Civilized People, Do Civilized Things,” is perceived as simply funny, not ironic. When Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce, popular from San Francisco to Penang but hardly known in Peking, puts up advertising billboards in Hong Kong’s Chater Road with the caption “Love the Fatherland, love Hong Kong,” and Bosideng Down Wear advertises itself on airplane seats as “World Brand, Pride of the Nation,” it becomes clear that public displays of official language, far from being a relic that no one pays any attention to any longer, are influencing everyday life in new ways.

Advertising in China is regulated by the 1994 Advertising Law. The law’s Article 3 stipulates that advertising “must comply with the requirements of the construction of socialist spiritual civilization.” Article 7 adds that it must “uphold public morality and professional ethics, protect national dignity and interest” and that it must not “hinder social stability”, “harm the public interest of society”, “impede the public order of society and violate good social customs”, and in particular “have obscene, superstitious, terroristic, violent, or ugly content.” But the law does not specify any sanctions for violating these provisions. Section 4, which deals with the approval of advertising, covers the advertising of pharmaceuticals and chemicals; it extends to “other advertising as determined by laws and administrative regulations,” but no such additional regulations have been made public.[2]

Moreover, the law does not name the “responsible administrative bodies” to whom the request for approval must be made. It appears that this function has been vested in the State Administration for Industry & Commerce’s State Administration on Advertising. While this is mainly a regulatory body for the advertising business rather than for the content of advertisements, it has a Department of Advertisement Supervision, whose functions include “guiding the work of advertising approval bodies; setting up a complete system of advertising censors,” and “organize administrative responses to cases of illegal advertising activity.”[3] But who the “advertising approval bodies” are remains unexplained, and as of mid-2006, the only document of a regulatory nature issued by this department that was available on its website concerned the banning of advertising of text messaging and telephone services with a sexual content.[4] Later in the year, it was the General Administration of Press and Publications – the body that is normally in charge of approving publications – that, together with the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, issued a ban on print advertising of abortions and for treatments for eleven different diseases including AIDS, cancer, syphilis and epilepsy.

There is also a China Advertising Association, a “social organization” that has the State Administration for Industry and Commerce as its supervisory body and thus, as most government-organised NGOs (GONGOs) in China, is in fact probably the “civil face” of the State Administration of Advertising. But apart from “promoting the self-regulation (zhua zilü) of the industry,” the China Advertising Association’s charter and description of activities make no mention of being involved in advertising approval.[5]

After the protests, many media repeated calls for new advertising regulations were repeated in many media. In fact, the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television had just begun enforcing new “decency rules” earlier in 2004.

Many of the incriminated cases were linked to foreign advertising agencies. Both the Nippon Paint and McDonalds cases were produced by Leo Burnett’s branches in China, and some of the more sympathetic commentaries attributed their “mistake” to lack of cultural familiarity. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2005 was the year when China, complying with WTO rules, opened its advertising market fully to foreign investment; until then, foreign advertising agencies had to establish joint ventures. In 2006, Jingji Shibao (Economic Times) published a series of under the heading “Foreign Capital’s Pressure Causes Crisis of Chinese Advertising Industry”[6]. Chen Yong, the editor-in-chief of Xiandai Guanggao (Modern Advertising), was so worried by the advance of foreign companies that he called for a national effort by the profession, the government, corporations, media, and “society” to ensure that the Chinese advertising industry can resist the pressure of foreign competition. According to the article, international advertising companies held 21% of China’s advertising market in 2005, including nearly all international brands and China’s largest advertising clients.[7] Domestic advertisers may have felt the “offensive” ads were an opportunity to attack their foreign competition and prompt the government and businesses towards new regulations or self-imposed preferences that would favour “safe” domestic companies. Indeed, another article in the series argued that the strength of international advertisers was leading to a crisis of “national brands” carried by their domestic competitors and threatening the transmission of traditional culture by “marginalizing” Chinese moral values in advertising (manifested in the promotion of sexual hedonism). [8]

Yet none of the protests against advertising have involved charges of indecency. Rather, the “moral panic” they triggered had to do with the perceived subversion of imagery related to the state or the state-endorsed construct of Chinese tradition, which it invokes as the basis of its legitimacy. While the protests have not been state-directed, state media reports on “the broad masses’ anger” mean official permission and legitimation to be angry. For example, the title of the People’s Daily article, putting the question “how to distinguish advertising that harm national dignity?” to the readers, affirmed that such advertising exists; it must only be identified. Similarly, the selection of readers’ responses published on official websites, while often purporting to present “both sides” of the debate, identifies the range of opinions that are acceptable – and these included the one that, on the People’s Daily website, threatened to “hurt” the “scum” that had published the Nippon Paint ad. When Jinlu Wanbao gave its article on the subject the title “Chinese dragon ‘slides’ on Nippon lacquer; our countrymen loudly demand Nippon’s apology,” it elevated the Internet posters to the positive and solemn category of “countryman” (国人), suggesting that readers should feel solidary with his opinion. The poster quoted in the article had himself used the authoritative language of official communiqués (expressions such as “strongly demand,” 严正要求), but he had done so in the essentially informal, ludic discursive space of the BBS. The newspaper lifted the posters from the context of nicks and avatars to the more formal space of print media, and thereby legitimized his use of authoritative language, giving him a patriot’s status. The article, formally maintaining a neutral stand, nonetheless commented that “many viewers will think that this (i.e. the ad) means Chinese traditional culture must make a servile bow to Japan’s commercial civilization” (很多收众都会以为,这意味着中国传统文化要向日本的商业文明俯首称臣). In other words, the newspaper affirmed the legitimacy and reasonableness of such a reading. It is this discursive effect that we have seen earlier applied by Beijing Youth Daily.

And faced with it, the “culprits” themselves felt compelled to revert to the timeworn language of the Communist Party: the editors of the magazine attributed their “mistake” to their “low political level” (政治水平不高) – as if they had been children or drunks playing at capitalist, creative nonchalance, but being called to answer to their teachers, quickly sobered up and were shamed into using proper language.

Reporting on the Toyota affair on the Xinhua forum was structured in the same way as the Nippon Paint case on People’s Daily. Selected postings both strongly condemning of the ads and arguing against excessive sensitivity were included on the site, but none that directly challenged the idea that the ads were insulting – only whether or not such a violent reaction was counterproductive or even foolish. And the commentary posted by the site’s editors said:

Netizens (网友, a common term literally translated as “Net friends”) believe the stone lions carry the meaning of symbols of China. Considering the association between Marco Polo bridge (the bridge that was blown up by the Japanese in 1937 and that had famous stone lions), the stone lions and the anti-Japanese war makes one detest (the ad) with even greater indignation (更加让人愤恨).[9]

[Go to next chapter]



[4] “Notice on banning the publication of advertising of voice and text messaging services with ungood content” (关于禁止发布有不良内容声讯,短信息等电信信息服务广告的通知).


[6] “外资重压下的中国广告《产业危机》”

[7] Reproduced on 中国广告网, 4 July 2006. See article text here.

[8] Hu Liang 胡亮 “外资重压中国广告业危机《多米诺效应》” Reproduced on 中国广告网, 6 July 2006. See article text here.

[9] “丰田《霸道》广告踩了哪颗雷垒?” (What mine did Toyota’s Prado ad hit?), 9 February 2003,

%d bloggers like this: