NAVIGATING THE AD LAWS AND CULTURAL PITFALLS IN CHINA

Number 4, Color Blue Are Taboo; No Statue of Liberty Allowed

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HONG KONG (AdAge.com) -- Marketing in China requires careful navigation of the mainland's Confucian past and Communist present.

Understanding cultural differences is the first step toward successful branding in the world's most populous

Photo: AP
In a serendipitous visual that captures the spirit of past and present that defines China's ad restrictions, a statue of Chairman Mao stands in front of a consumer banking billboard in Zhengzhou in central China.
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nation. While Americans savor self-expression and individual freedoms, Chinese place a high emphasis on group and family values. Even ads aimed at teens should be laced with peer solidarity and a healthy respect for parental authority.

Humor and sex appeal
Marketers should also be careful when using humor and sex appeal, particularly for national campaigns, because language and values vary greatly from province to province.

During holidays especially, marketers should opt for warm, sincere and courteous campaigns. Cultural taboos include use of the number "four," a homonym for "death" in China's tonal language, and visual references to the grim reaper or funerals, such as the color blue.

And there are political hurdles. Creative briefs and storyboards must be checked by fickle administrators to ensure content complies with local laws. For instance, ads and product packaging cannot insult competitors, even by implication, and cannot link a brand with practitioners such as doctors, dentists or lawyers.

Claims banned
China's strict one-party government also bans product claims such as "No. 1 in China," "best-selling," and "recommended by" from ads, packaging, signage and promotional items. Pharmaceutical ads cannot show patients or symptoms.

"You cannot compare your brand or product with competitors, but you can compare your new product with your previous one," said Stephen Mui, executive creative director at Leo Burnett, Guangzhou.

Ads should avoid associating brands with icons from pre-Communist China, such as images of imperial China and its emperor, as well as modern-day maps, national flags and anthems.

Photo: AP
By law, there are no 'best-selling' or 'No. 1' beers in China advertising.
"Unfortunately, censorship is not consistent. It's very subjective and the government is sensitive about unusual things," added Jorg Dietzel, Hong Kong-based regional business development director, Asia/Pacific, for Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide.

Statue of Liberty
Mr. Dietzel recalls a "harmless" airline ad that featured famous images from U.S. cities, including New York's Statue of Liberty. "The statue had to be removed from the ad; [Chinese censors] said it was a 'political statement.' We showed the Empire State Building instead."

Earlier this year, Toyota Motor Corp. accidentally stirred up painful memories with a campaign for its Land Cruiser and Land Cruiser Prado sport utility vehicles, created by Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi.

In one execution, two stone lions -- Chinese symbols of authority -- saluted as a Prado passes. Another showed a Toyota Land Cruiser towing what appeared to be a Chinese military vehicle. Many consumers interpreted the ads as references to Japan's occupation of China during World War II.

Saatchi dropped
The campaign was withdrawn and bitter Toyota executives dropped Saatchi from its Land Cruiser account (ironically in favor of Japanese agency Dentsu).

To avoid clashes with cultural and political sensitivities, Mr. Mui suggests adding a modern twist to traditional Chinese fables. For Nippon Paint, Leo Burnett yielded "fantastic results" last year with three spots that used ancient Chinese tales to highlight three product benefits, waterproofing, covering hairline cracks and superior washability.

One of the spots recalled a famous tale of a man entrusted by the government with preventing the Yellow River from flooding. He was so committed to his job he never had time to check on his own family home. When asked by a friend why he turned a blind eye to his own dwelling, the hero replied cheerfully that his home was painted with waterproof Nippon Paint.

Such tales work particularly well in southern China, where human interest stories are valued, added Mr. Dietzel. In contrast, residents of Beijing, the northern capital, "prefer no-nonsense information-based advertising, while Shanghainese go for glitzy production values."

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