Madison Avenue meets Mandarin

January 21st, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Features, Jan. 2010  |  3 Comments

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Few societies have undergone as rapid changes as the People’s Republic of China. In a mere half-century China has radically transformed itself several times—from Mao’ Cultural Revolution to the Great Leap Forward to the rapid shift to an export-focused, quasi-capitalist economy and an ascending consumer society.

Until the 1980s, mass media was completely under government control. But as China began opening up, advertisements slowly appeared.

Xin Zhao watched the transformation growing up in the People’s Republic of China. Now he conducts research on how these advertisements shaped Chinese society and reflect conditions of the time as an assistant professor of international marketing in the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s Shidler College of Business.

His work has been published in the prestigious Journal of Advertising and Journal of Consumer Research. It earned him Shidler College’s 2007 Shirley M. Lee Research Excellence Award.

In ads from the early 1980s, Zhao found that advertisers commonly used easily recognizable symbols of the Communist regime and propaganda icons of Chinese Communist ideology to promote consumption and confer implied government approval of the businesses featured.

Government approval was particularly important. After decades of being told that consumption was bad for China, consumers were reluctant to spend money on anything but basic goods and services, he explains.

print advertising from China

“People were afraid to show off their wealth back in the early 1980s. When the Chinese government tried to throw a party for entrepreneurs who had become rich, no one was willing to come,” he says.

Not surprisingly, many Chinese advertisements from that period resembled Communist propaganda posters, with specific words and characters lifted from key government edicts.

“Advertisements were closely monitored by the government propaganda office and were often censored. So most advertisers specifically acknowledged their support of governmental campaigns, even when such campaigns were anticonsumption in nature,” Zhao says.

As Chinese society opened up in the 1990s, the government explicitly promoted consumption in order to maintain rapid economic growth. Although nationalism was still prominent in Chinese advertising, advertisers no longer felt compelled to strike political chords and instead played to China’s rising consumerist culture.

Today in China, advertising is omnipresent, with spots running in elevators, at shopping malls and on the sides of buildings. The ads are rarely associated with politics.

Ironically, the consumerist culture in part brought about by the ads has significantly changed Chinese social customs, even funerals. Zhao explains: “Funerals used to be very simple events. Now, people buy full-size paper replicas of cell phones, refrigerators, television sets, even BMW motorcycles to be burned at funerals to make sure the deceased have nice possessions in the afterlife.”

print advertising from China

Reprinted from Kaunānā.

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  1. Bill Haig, Ph.D. says:

    January 23rd, 2010at 5:46 pm(#)

    Please put me in touch with Xin Zhao. I taught advertising at HPU before I retired. I am doing post doctorate work which will interest him.

    Thank you.

    Bill Haig, Ph.D. [personal contact information removed]

  2. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry says:

    January 24th, 2010at 9:24 pm(#)

    It’s been interesting to watch China advance over the past 50 years (or say 38 since Nixon’s visit in ’72, or say ’73 and my first Chinese-made trinket, a plastic-noodle-frog I bought in Paris, France, before the USA market bloomed)…

    But I still have the feeling they are not going to press their advancement beyond what USA citizens have: There’s still that feeling they’re a population-oriented-society while the western world moves toward college-oriented…

    That’s quaint, because they’ll keep their Chinese Kanji;

    But sad because they’ll struggle like slaves to sell the simpler things of life to the world, for getting rich…

    It’s not that bad with modern factory equipment but it’s still like Days of Heaven, a worker’s life, instead of a thinker’s life…

    I’ve long pondered what the Chinese culture knows of the archaic world: The older Sumer gods moved east after the flood wiped their first mankind-supporters off the map;- Maybe they too had a greco-esque millennium of the gods.

    Just a few pastorale thoughts.


  3. Online Editor says:

    January 25th, 2010at 9:35 am(#)

    Aloha Bill — I’ve removed your phone number as posting personal contact information online is not something we encourage.

    However, you can find Dr. Xin Zhao’s workplace contact info listed in the Shidler College of Business directory