China’s own media does little to help, often leaving its audience with unanswerable questions and questionable answers. The gap is massive, and discussions about sensitive topics here can take on the surreal quality of a Monty Python skit.
Even the most basic things can become confusing in China, like the meaning of the Olympics. For this vast audience, are the Olympic Games primarily about supporting the nation or are they a celebration of excellence? Are the games about a group effort, or that moment of individual perfection? Will China see the games through a lens of collective “Asian” values or individualist “Western” values?
The answer to these questions are harder than they seem. Sure, Chinese kids are generally less outspoken than their American peers. There are dozens of Chinese proverbs about the strength of teamwork and the importance of blending with society. But China has raised a generation of pampered single children playing alone on the internet and dreaming of reality-TV celebrity. Are they as collectivist as their parents were?
This question is being fought out now on billboards through China’s cities--most prominently in recent Nike and Adidas campaigns. One Nike ad features superstar hurdler Liu Xiang jumping against a hip-hop-inspired backdrop of traditional Chinese elements, while Adidas used calligraphic techniques to show athletes lifted up by an endless mob of faceless fans.
The executions are comparable--modernized Chinese elements vs. China-fied modern elements--but their core messages are polar opposites.
Nike’s bet seems to be that Chinese kids are excited by heroic individual success, while Adidas is betting on the affection that comes from supporting a hero. Individualism vs.collectivism--which will sell more shoes? Which view is ultimately more powerful? For now it remains an unanswerable question, in part because youth across China seem enthusiastic about the approach used by each marketer. Although their core messages differ, Nike and Adidas each have produced great-looking ads.
That’s not always the case though. Chinese TV is flooded with dreadful ads. For years the most notorious culprit has been “Naobaijin," a mental-acuity supplement with ads both corny and plentiful.
In the past few weeks, however, we’ve seen something even worse. A local knitwear brand, "Hengyuanxiang,” just made history. Its recent ad, basically a brand logo, with a voice-over declaiming the brand name, was so intolerable and repetitious (they ran it consecutively over a half dozen times in one ad break) that viewers complained en masse and forced an apology from the advertiser and China’s national TV broadcaster. It is an encouraging sign of rising expectations from an increasingly savvy audience.
The most interesting place for media watching is neither on billboards nor TV but on the internet. This is the home of China’s biggest pop-culture story: for those who have been on Mars, it's the ongoing saga of Hong Kong-actor Edison Chen and the online publication of his massive collection of sexually incriminating photos taken with a varied cast of actresses and other female celebrities.
The impact on the involved parties has been dramatic--gossips wag that Edison’s life is threatened by the shady Hong Kong underworld, and it’s hard to imagine the women recovering from their (over)exposure and going back to their lives as peppy pop stars.
More importantly, the scandal has cast a spotlight on the boundaries of China’s media. For the most part, Chinese people don’t think much about the censorship that surrounds them. It rarely comes up in discussions beyond a vague sense that certain things won’t make it into the press.
In salacious pursuit of Edison’s photos, however, everyday people have employed a hacker’s grab-bag of tricks--from proxy servers to virtual private networks--to elude the censors and find forbidden images. The government’s speed at shutting sites down is awe-inspiring, surpassed only by the speed at which new ones crop up. For the young people of China it is an unusually visible glimpse at the censorship that surrounds them.
As the Olympics race toward us, we will see more and more discontinuity between the stories the world tells about China, and the stories China tells itself. The discrepancies have massive implications for brands as well as individuals. Ironically, that discussion may have been drastically changed by a horny Hong Kong starlet and a fast internet connection.
P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.