After China Banned Wordplay on TV, a Punny Thing Happened

Puns Survived, and They're Still a Staple of Advertising in China

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A Beats by Dre ad starring boxer Zou Shiming uses wordplay.
A Beats by Dre ad starring boxer Zou Shiming uses wordplay.
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Last November, China decreed a Great Pun Purge. Regulators banned wordplay on TV and radio, including in ads on those media. Their argument was that some puns defile China's language traditions and confuse impressionable youth.

"Such practices are contrary to the spirit of transmitting and promoting outstanding traditional Chinese culture, and run the risk of misleading the public, especially minors, and therefore must be resolutely corrected," said the notice (in unofficial translation here), which proved irresistible fodder for cringe-worthy jokes around the world. "One could call it cruel and unusual pun-ishment," one Reddit user wrote, while another added: "Well, China, it either was Mao or never."

The directive from the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television said TV and radio should set an example for the rest of China by not only giving up puns, but also all "non-standard language."

But what exactly does "non-standard language" mean, anyway? It's clearly subjective. And while the notice struck some as very far-reaching if strictly interpreted, a few months later it's clear that most puns aren't going away.

The pun is dead; long live the pun

In Chinese advertising and branding, wordplay remains a staple. PepsiCo uses it constantly. Its annual Chinese New Year campaign is called "Bring Happiness Home." Since the Chinese names of its star brands, Pepsi and Lay's, both include the character for "happiness," the campaign's double meaning encourages people to bring cola and chips home too, notes Mareike Ohlberg, a post-doctoral researcher on propaganda and media policy at Shih Hsin University in Taiwan.

"I think all of this shows that, yes, the 'ban' was only selectively implemented," said Ms. Ohlberg, who dissected the directive in a thoughtful blog post. Without insider knowledge, she said, it's "unclear from the very broad directive itself what the authorities want eliminated and what they don't care about."

Apparently PepsiCo's puns are no threat – the Culture Ministry tapped part of its campaign to run in New York's Times Square last month as an overseas goodwill message during Chinese New Year.

Authorities' main concern was a small subset of puns, ones that play on "chengyu," idioms that are literary references. Those types of puns were singled out as an example of what to avoid in the notice; and Ad Age couldn't find any signs of them in recent campaigns.

Oni Zhang, Shanghai-based planning manager for Grey Group, found other forms of wordplay that don't involve chengyu in recent online ads for Australian tourism, local paper manufacturer Vinda and Beats by Dre. Puns remain popular with advertisers in China because they're catchy, memorable and allow brands to put a few messages in a short phrase, he said.

Since "Chinese consumers are getting exposed to so many ads every day, it is getting harder and harder to catch their eyes and make a message stick in their minds," he said.

The Beats ad starring boxer Zou Shiming uses several plays on words in just a few characters. One hammers in the idea that wireless headphones are great for athletes, since the word for "wireless" in Chinese also means "no limits."

Though puns do pop up on TV, clever wordplay seems to be especially popular in online and social campaigns.

One example comes from a new food delivery start-up named "Call a Chicken," based in Chengdu. The word "chicken" is slang for a prostitute in China, and one tongue-in-cheek ad suggested that women "call a chicken" for their husbands.

On microblogging service Weibo, a Durex social campaign played with Nike's slogan, "Just Do It." It replaced the "Do" with the Chinese character "du" that is part of Durex's local brand name.

Idiom-proofing China

All this raises a big question: Why did China tackle puns in the first place?

It's not clear. The desire to protect the language, as mentioned in the notice, probably played some role.

Many have also pointed out that wordplay and "non-standard language" in China can take on a subversive edge, since it's a creative way of getting around internet censors.

On Chinese social networks, people often type homonyms for banned terms, substituting in different characters that sound identical or similar, to avoid getting censored.

And when it comes to puns, the creativity of Chinese internet users knows no bounds. The term "grass mud horse" – a mythical creature – was coined a few years ago as a humorous anti-censorship symbol because the three characters sound similar to an obscene command involving mothers.

Another mythical beast is the "Fa Ke You." It ostensibly refers to a French-Croatian squid. Say it fast and you'll get the gist.