Advertisers in China are turning to digital to avoid soaring media inflation and government restrictions on ad time, but the trend is producing an unexpected benefit for consumers: better, and often, funnier ads.
"Thanks to [the] online space, clients are more willing to experiment. They are becoming more daring and more open online," said JWT's executive creative director-Northeast Asia, Lo Sheung Yan, on "Thoughtful China," an online marketing-affairs talk show produced in Shanghai.
Mr. Lo appeared on the show alongside two other award-winning Chinese creative directors, Leagas Delaney's Kevin Lee and Saatchi & Saatchi's Fan Ng, to share their favorite recent ads produced in China and to discuss trends influencing China's ad market today, including online media, greater use of humor and the government's increasingly heavy hand in China's media industry.
Censors carefully scrutinize TV ads and weed out story lines that could damage "social harmony" or promote political discontent, usually before the ad is even made. Advertisers are legally required to submit story boards and scripts for approval before production starts.
The censors certainly are not known for their sense of humor, but that 's not the only reason advertisers there have traditionally had little appetite for jokes. Ads created for a mass-market audience, especially TV viewers, also seldom use sophisticated humor due to cultural reasons. China covers a vast territory, and a joke that elicits great laughs among kids in Guangdong province can easily fall flat in Hunan or Sichuan.
"For all of China's size, there are relatively few stories or characters that the whole country knows. Neither Mao Zedong nor the Monkey King makes great marketing. This poses a big problem, since it's still a mass-market economy," said P.T. Black, Thoughtful China's senior creative director. China's broadcast mass media "is like adults crowding into a kiddie pool -- restrictive boundaries, shallow content, and not enough of it, so advertisers don't have much to work with."
Digital media brings like-minded consumers together into social-media groups, providing rich opportunities for creatives who chafe at China's censorship restrictions as well as a chance to run ads well beyond the normal 30-second spot.
JWT's Mr. Lo, for instance, selected a series of slapstick spots for a local electronics chain called Media Markt, which invites store customers to vote for their favorite store employees, a series of zany characters.
Leagas Delaney's Mr. Lee shared a five-minute long spot for SC Johnson cleaner Mr. Muscle, which shows the dangers of dirty toilets in a series of funny scenarios.
State-run channels such as China Central Television (CCTV) are "too corporate" and too expensive to let advertisers take risks, said Saatchi & Saatchi's Mr. Ng. "That's why (microblog) Weibo and online channels like Youku are very popular. There is real demand [for] humor, storytelling and entertainment."
His favorite Chinese ads, for Wrigley's Extra Long mints, document a young couple's travels through China on a motorcycle and sidecar, as they are chased by gangs and flirty strangers.
The shift to digital media is about more than entertainment. Years of double-digit inflation for TV ad rates has become a significant concern. And starting this month, Chinese regulators are prohibitingstations from running ad breaks during entertainment programs. The government is also cutting way back on the total number of popular entertainment shows allowed on the air, sending more viewers online in search of fun content.