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China's Super Bowl Equivalent: 4 Hours, 700M Viewers, 0 Ads

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China's annual TV extravaganza to ring in the Lunar New Year is often compared to the Super Bowl in scope, but it's bigger (700 million viewers), with more bling (dance numbers, celebs, sequins).

One big difference: No commercials are permitted during China's gala.

Instead, state broadcaster CCTV asked agencies this year to pitch public service spots on a theme dear to President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Dream. It's a nebulous idea he invokes to refer to a "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

One public service ad from McCann ran during last year's CCTV lunar new year gala. This time, several dozen agencies, foreign and local, were asked to come up with ideas. Spots by McCann Shanghai and Saatchi & Saatchi Beijing aired during the marathon broadcast Jan. 30.

They complement each other: McCann's ad looks inward at China's heritage, while Saatchi's focuses on how the world sees China.

While such messages can sometimes be heavy-handed, both spots seek a more subtle path to instilling pride in Chinese culture.

The variety show is a three-decade tradition in China, a show that every family turns on during dinner, but that fewer and fewer people enjoy sitting through.

Even state media sometimes admits it's a tired tradition. The China Youth Daily published a January poll saying that more than 55 percent of respondents find the gala outdated. (Among the comedy sketches, acrobatics and song-and-dance numbers this year, one segment was a historic ballet with women dressed in Red Army uniforms.)

It's unclear why CCTV is including public service spots now, but it might be an attempt to make the gala more relevant.

The brief from CCTV talked "about the Chinese Dream, the hope," said Tian It Ng, executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi Beijing. "I guess it's all about feeling good, feeling good to be Chinese."

While many Chinese New Year ads in China are tearjerkers about families – brand messages included -- Mr. Ng said he wanted to do something more upbeat.

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"Our idea is that at Christmas, a lot of people celebrate it whether they are Christian or not, and when it comes to Chinese New Year, with so much of the world's population being Chinese, I think it's worthy of celebration as well," he said. The ad shows people around the world celebrating the holiday in quirky ways.

Saatchi has developed prize-winning public service ads for CCTV for several years; one recent spot focused on a deaf boy and his parent's efforts to help him.

The McCann PSA that aired during the gala showcased chopsticks and all their meanings in China – they're how babies taste their first foods, how children learn manners and something to share with neighbors at the dinner table.

"I am sure many viewers do not know it was a commercial or short film, for them it just seemed like part of the program for 90 seconds," said Tomaz Mok, chairman of McCann Guangming, who said the agency made the PSA at cost, along with another spot also running during the holiday period.

The gala isn't entirely non-commercial. Brands mentioned during the event are considered sponsors, Mr. Mok said. Clothing in the spotlight – such as a red jacket worn by a celebrity this year – started trending quickly on online shopping sites.

And though the gala was commercial-free on CCTV, it wasn't for people watching it afterward online. One ad that preceded online clips of the event was for France's DS luxury car brand, featuring French former Bond girl Sophie Marceau. She also appeared in the gala, crooning "La Vie en Rose."

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