THE NEW ASIA;AD ACTIVITY ON THE UPSWING AS BURMA MARKETS BECKON:HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES LINGER AS MULTINATIONALS BUILD A PRESENCE

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Multinational marketers have been focusing on Burma (also known as Myanmar) as one of Asia's last sizable untapped markets. Their efforts have been called into question, however, by last month's crackdown on dissidents by the military government. Ad spending in Burma is not monitored formally, but growth is evident from the burgeoning quantity of TV spots and outdoor and print ads in the country.

Myanmar Media International (MMI), a Leo Burnett Co. affiliate, says its billings have increased more than 100% in the last year, and Bates Myanmar Ltd. puts its annual growth rate at 150%-200%, although from a very small base.

TOBACCO ADS ON TV

Cigarette ads, accepted on TV, account for perhaps 15% to 20% of all advertising, said Jan Standaert, managing director of Burmese market research firm SRG, owned by ACNielsen. Tobacco companies have poured money into the two state-operated stations, which run on the same channel-one in the morning, the other in the evening. But advertisers complain commercials are delayed, without prior notification, until late in the evening or possibly the next day-often to make way for news.

Without data on ad and consumer spending, Peter Thein, director of domestic operations at Bates Myanmar Ltd., counts Mercedes autos to gauge buying power in Rangoon (also known as Yangon). Today, he spots a Mercedes every 10-to-20 minutes; several years ago, it was one every few hours.

"Luxury goods are on sale and they are snatched up like hotcakes," said Germaine Ng, executive director of MMI.

Multinational firms that advertise on TV include Daewoo, Nestle, B.A.T., Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Hennessy.

OUTDOOR HAS STRONG PRESENCE

In outdoor, B.A.T. boards are evident throughout Rangoon. Other marketers have taken imaginative approaches. Singapore's Tiger Beer Co. agreed to put up all of Rangoon's street signs, provided the indicators sport the Tiger Beer name and logo.

Burma began opening to foreign investment in 1988, but only recently did international marketers decide the country of roughly 45 million people was ripe for growth-in spite of misgivings about the State Law and Order Restoration Council's human rights record. SLORC, the ruling junta, established martial law in 1988, then blocked the pro-democracy opposition party from assuming power in 1990 after its victory in national elections. Last month, it arrested more than 250 opposition activists.

BATES FIRST TO ARRIVE

In 1992, Bates Worldwide became the first multinational agency to set up in Burma, following client B.A.T. Last March, McCann-Erickson Worldwide took a majority stake in local agency Sann Aung Imaging Ltd. to service R.J. Reynolds, San Miguel beer, Unilever and Nestle.

Thai and Singaporean agencies are competing with multinational shops for a handful of local partners. Bangkok-based Spa Advertising Co. last month formed a joint venture with local shop Today Advertising Ltd. to serve the Burmese market. Spa's chairman, Kitti Chambundabongse, said he hopes for billings of $1.2 million in the first year. The firm plans to go next into China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

A late 1995 surge of print advertising led to a 100% increase in newspaper ad rates-to $30 per column inch-in February 1996. Myanmar Media's Ms. Ng said the rate for a :30 prime-time TV spot ranges from $390 to $820.

Years of isolation from advertising and the limited purchasing power of most Burmese mean that most current advertising is designed to build business for the future. About 70% of ads aim to create brand awareness and about 30% are geared toward sales, Bates Myanmar's Mr. Thein said.

Observers note that marketing efforts may be tempered by a wait-and-see attitude by companies concerned about political unrest, as well as Burma's overvalued local currency.

AD RULES ARE FEW

For now, regulation is minimal. Ads are approved by a censorship board, and the government recently limited the number of new outdoor boards on main roads in Rangoon.

The government censors "culturally offensive" ads-those that are provocative or violent. One advertiser noted problems re-using print ads published in other markets that show a woman wearing a miniskirt.

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