HONG KONG (AdAgeChina.com) -- The gloomy news from Wall Street is putting a damper on lunar new year festivities halfway around the world. Although the ox traditionally stands for strength, consumer confidence in China's economy looks shaky for the first time in this century.
Marketers have replaced their usual upbeat ads encouraging heavy consumption during the annual celebration with reflective messages about the importance of family and community.
Coca-Cola Co. has launched an emotional spot showing Liu Xiang sharing the first Coke of the year with his father, but the subtext of the spot is a story of redemption. In a heart-wrenching moment for China last August at the 2008 Olympic Games, the track star pulled out of the games because of foot injuries.
The ad is "a reflection of what happened to Liu Xiang and to China. 2008 was a big year of ups and downs but through all the great times and not so great times, there is a desire to stand by him and China, and look forward to 2009," said Shanghai-based Andres Kiger, Coke's senior director of integrated marketing in China.
The spot was created by Red Lounge, which manages creative resources for brand Coca-Cola in China.
Procter & Gamble Co. is promoting Gillette with a goodwill campaign developed by BBDO Worldwide and Shunya International, Porter Novelli's partner agency in China, that celebrates Chinese New Year through images of people who can't go home during the annual holiday.
P&G is also offering free shaves and outdoor entertainment to tens of thousands of migrant workers and farmers at a time when unemployment in China is becoming a national crisis. Thousands of factories have shut down in China over the past six months as exports to recession-plagued western countries have dried up, putting millions out of work.
"Gillette isn't just trying to find unsung heroes in China. It's about finding some concrete things to help those people," said P&G spokeswoman in Guangzhou, Heidi Wang.
Alpenliebe, a leading candy brand in China, is encouraging consumers to express more love among family members during the holiday.
"Chinese New Year is the most important festival in China," said Mirabelle Ng, an account director at JWT, Shanghai, Alpenliebe's creative agency. "It's the only time in the year that people from all over the country will go back home and have a reunion with their families. We don't just sell candies, we give love."
Most multinationals are staying away from Chinese New Year altogether this year, partly for economic reasons.
"Media inflation and the fact that people have tighter budgets and need their money to go further throughout the year is driving the slowdown in Chinese New Year activity," said Kel Hook, managing director, China at Wieden + Kennedy in Shanghai.
Stephen Drummond, Y&R's national planning director for China in Shanghai, also identified media inflation as a major reason marketers are quiet this month. "Unless they have something very specific to say with a gifting element, they go through a dilemma about whether to invest in advertising during the holiday. A lot of people will decide to wait until post-Chinese New Year to avoid clutter and avoid expensive media costs."
The global recession has also prompted advertisers to focus on tactical ads and retail marketing rather than brand campaigns.
The U.S. fast food chain KFC, for example, is focusing more on value meals this month to drive traffic to its restaurants, said Chris Reitermann, president of Ogilvy & Mather, Shanghai. "What's changing this year is that it's more hard-sell than in the past, clients are focusing more on a value-for-money message. Before, it was nearly disgraceful to put that in an ad. Now it's acceptable, especially for products aimed at middle class consumers."
The trend also reflects growing sophistication about the Chinese market. In the early days of the country's modern-day economic growth, multinational marketers were eager to utilize the festival as a cultural touch point. Campaigns commonly played on animal imagery from the Chinese zodiac.
Last year, for instance, Disney played up the connection between Mickey Mouse during the year of the rat (mouse and rat are represented by the same Chinese character).
During the year of the ox, the easiest connection for marketers lies in the dairy industry, but they are largely silent this year, too.
"Dairies are using the ox imagery less than other marketers, because they don't want to focus on where their milk is coming from right now," Mr. Reitermann said. Last year, China's dairy industry was rocked by a melamine scandal that sickened hundreds of thousands of infants, killing at lest six and leading to a worldwide recall of milk-related products made in the mainland.
During the year of the pig, however, the decision to steer clear of animal imagery wasn't optional. In January 2007, China's ruling Communist party decreed that no images or references to pigs could appear in local media in the lead-up to that year's Chinese New Year festivities, to avoid offending the country's millions of Muslims, who view pigs as unclean animals. The ban even included animated or cartoon depictions of pigs.
This year's holiday received a early start with the inauguration of Barack Obama, who was born on Aug. 4, 1961. Yup, America's new president is an ox, meaning he can expect a "busy schedule, big pressure from every direction [and] bad gossip," said Chinese astrologer Edgar Yung. "People still have trust and confidence issues. 2009 will be a tough year ahead for him."
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