Illustration: Peter C.Espina/GT
A recent advertisement by Chinese detergent brand Qiaobi caused a stir in international media. In the ad, a Chinese woman pours detergent in the mouth of a black man and puts him into a washing machine. After a few rounds of whirling and spinning, he comes out as a light skinned cute Asian man.
The ad raised more than a few eyebrows among some Chinese commentators as well. On some domestic social media platforms, people pointed to the racist nature of the ad. But it was far from a topic of widespread debate. It was not until the international media chimed in with ridicule and outrage, that the manufacturer of the detergent, Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics Ltd Co, apologized.
A mainstream advertisement that gets so close to the racial edge may seem like an impossible faux pas in many developed countries. But given the largely homogeneous population of China, this may be a mistake borne out of ignorance than racism. The ad, though, is another example of how advertising has gone wild in a country where consumerism has become the defining drum beat.
It's hard to not notice that advertisements have invaded just about every corner of life. The stencils and lamp poles advertising doctors who cure fungal infections or infertility, or promoting agents who can help you get any kind of certificate, clearly have not been wiped out by the tightened regulations. But the legal ones also find their way into any available space. The handles on a bus are often wrapped with the name of a brand. A TV soap opera about a love tragedy can be accompanied with flashing text at the bottom of the screen promoting a drug that cures sexually transmitted diseases. And a decent-looking website where you can book air tickets could be half covered with pop-up ads for rich single men looking for wives.
A recent train trip I took in southern China was a perfect case study. Right after I got on board, and after a no-smoking warning, a soothing female voice started to promote the snacks available on the train. The roasted chicken made in Dezhou city was clearly one of the highlights. We were told "it was made from tender young chicks and precious herbal seasonings, and went through more than 20 steps of processing." And it was defined as a "local delicacy," although we were almost 2,000 kilometers away from the city where the chicken got its name.
Then the sweet voice on the speakerphone started to promote another "local snack," the fried dough twists from Tianjin, which was even further than the chicken city to the passengers on this train.
The two items were highlighted one after another repeatedly for 10 minutes. After that, every 10 minutes or so, the conductors started to announce the availability of a new kind of goodie.
There are some moments in China when I wonder whether the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York should learn a thing or two from the Chinese subway system, such as how to generate more income by squeezing in more ads in the subway cars. But those thoughts are fleeting. During my three hours on board there was never a five-minute period when we were not forced to listen to an advertisement for some "good deal."
Think about it: This basically is an equivalent of a train conductor in the US promoting the awful hamburgers in the cafeteria all the time, a desperate act that would make the "mad men" on Madison Avenue look less mad.
It's not that China doesn't regulate its advertising. Indeed, regulations in China are no less stringent than in the US, and sometimes, more stringent. But the problem with ads in China is that they still rely too much on outdated methods. They try to win consumers by showering them with ideas and subjective assessments while forcing them to listen or look. Today's intelligent and sophisticated consumers know how to shun those overtures. But the advertisers don't seem to have realized it.The author is a New York-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org