CHINA: THE WORLD'S MOST POPULOUS MARKET

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BEIJING- Saatchi & Saatchi Guangzhou's TV advertising for Procter & Gamble's Safeguard soap hits home in this country of 2.4 billion hands. After flashing to various grimy scenes such as crowded buses and dusty construction sites, the spot promises a clean and happy life for all those who wash up with its shapely bars of white and pastel-colored disinfectant soap.

As China continues washing its hands of life's grit-and of its old Communist system-marketers in this crucial emerging market are relying on TV commercials like this to grab the 300 million to 400 million Chinese who market researchers here estimate now have purchasing power.

Rather than being jaded by advertising, in fact, surveys find that Chinese consumer trust in advertising is among the highest anywhere in the world. In one survey of 700 high school-educated consumers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou-the vast majority queried by an ad agency that did not want to be identified-the majority of those polled said their favorable view of various products was based on ads.

But reaching those consumers with advertising that hits home is difficult in China's vast and varied consumer terrain.

National advertising campaigns are often built around a company's distribution network in the country. If a product is in 50 cities, the ideal is to run advertising in all of those areas. For many, "going national" in China often actually means covering the Big Three markets: Shanghai, Beijing, and various areas in southern Guangdong province.

But just what makes China so tantalizing to marketers-its vastness-can work against companies targeting the country. Tim Eldridge, general manager of Saatchi & Saatchi Guangzhou, said marketers testing the waters in China by isolating one of China's provinces don't yet have a sense of the order or magnitude. "It's like saying, `We'll go into Europe and treat Germany as our test market,' " he said.

Regional and class differences reign. Consumers in prosperous Guangdong who watch Hong Kong satellite TV are used to high-quality products and advertising, but elsewhere the picture can be different.

"If you went to the rural communities in Gansu province, and talked to the people who represent the 800 million who don't live in cities, you would find a very different consumer than you would in the north or in the south," Mr. Eldridge said.

There are other challenges. In China's high-speed, high-stakes economy, the rules of the road are so uncertain, and the legal system so weak, that it's easy to get burned. Expensive sponsorship deals, even with leading multinationals, for example, are sometimes simply not honored.

Another problem is high urban inflation that has sliced into the fixed incomes of many Chinese consumers, most of whom have yearly incomes of less than $400.

Choosing media can also be complex in a country that, according to the State Statistical Bureau, has about 700 TV stations, 900 newspapers and 7,000 magazines with provincial or national coverage. Foreign advertisers often prefer advertising on local TV stations rather than China Central Television's four national channels, according to advertising executives.

Negotiating the thicket of the multi-tiered-and discriminatory-TV rate structure isn't easy. Stations charge a local rate for Chinese advertisers, a foreign rate and a joint venture rate. Some sophisticated stations also have a fourth rate for fully foreign-owned enterprises in China.

Among the foreign ad agencies with offices or affiliations in major Chinese cities: Dentsu, Young & Rubicam; Leo Burnett Co.; D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles; Grey Advertising; Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson Co. Among marketers making recent inroads into China are Reebok International, Baskin Robbins, Radisson Hotels International, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Apple Computer.

Problems with working in China, and the country's uncertain political transition as the health of leader Deng Xiaoping fades, have not dampened corporate enthusiasm for China, or slowed the steady stream of new introductions.

Said Vera Dong, an account executive at D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles here: "If you watch TV every night, you can see the difference. There are more and more foreign advertisers."

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