At face value, this lack of humor seems at odds with Chinese society. Comedy, as elsewhere, is an important social lubricant, and can provide a way to balance out more competitive aspects of life. For this reason, some of the nation's most beloved celebrities are comedians.
During the Chinese New Year holiday period, film and television comedies are hugely popular with local viewers. Cross-talk performances, a traditional form of stand-up, are typically the most popular performances in the Spring Festival variety show special, watched by hundreds of millions of viewers annually.
The banal state of Chinese advertising is also puzzling when considered against a rich regional context. Brands in Southeast Asia and India, for example, regularly use humor in their communication mix to differentiate their campaigns from competitors. Advertising in Taiwan and Hong Kong, a more direct cultural comparison, is rich with satire, ridicule and slapstick.
In China, even advertising for seemingly comedy-friendly product categories remains highly functional and essentially humorless.
Cars go around bends fast and are socially impressive. Snack food brands typically feature lingering product shots interspersed with groups of consumers in spasms of contentment. Beer, a product usually associated with fun, is commonly presented through functional metaphors such as water or ice, or as a tool to be cool and impress peers.
The medium offers some hints as to why Chinese ads are so dry. From the mass introduction of television in the 1980s, Chinese television has become synonymous with the production of what can be described as indoctri-tainment -- communication that serves the dual aims of propaganda and popular entertainment. This means television has become associated with an authoritative and educational tone, creating somewhat of an unspoken straitjacket for creative advertising.
The recent rise and fall of reality TV programming in China is instructive. Local derivatives of global formats such as American Idol and Survivor, while massively popular, have been regulated out of existence on the grounds they do not serve a useful social purpose.
Even when China's beloved comedians appear in TV ads, expectant viewers are let down. Zhao Benshan, famous for his portrayal of a wisecracking peasant, appears in ads decked out in traditional mandarin suits presenting a straight-faced product message. When kung fu star and actor Jacky Chan fronts for brands, it is his international celebrity status that is highlighted rather than his ability to draw a laugh.
Considerable regional differences in comedic preference serve to further diffuse the marketing potential of humor. In the north, the local tradition of cross-talk (xiangsheng) is still popular. The comedic style usually features two or more performers engaged in pun and allusion rich banter. The style is similar to Albert and Costello's famous "Who's on First."
In the south, this type of comedy is less popular as it is considered scripted, traditional and way too corny. Southerners prefer more off-the-wall comedy known as mo lei tau, or no-logic humor, which relies heavily on parody and ridicule. The style has been popularized through the films of Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow that playfully reinterpret Chinese fables with modern interpretations. The challenge of addressing a national audience is also complicated by divergent income levels.
More creative ads have started to emerge in the snack and fast food category. Brands such as Danone and Yum Foods have started to present more off-the-wall takes on common snack moments to consumers in advanced cities like Shanghai. This style has become possible due to the more casual and detached attitude richer urban consumers are developing towards basic consumer goods.
However similar purchases in second and third tier centers are a more weighty decision for consumers. In this financial context brands are less inclined to use humor fearing they may patronize consumers. Focus is still predominately placed on no nonsense product education that relays benefits directly, with minimal room for reinterpretation or confusion.
As with other markets, decisions on ad content in China are dependent on the roles of brand managers, creatives and ultimately consumers.
On one hand, there are brand managers determined not to compromise the hard fought brand equity they have gained in the Chinese market. The primary emphasis is on consolidation rather than appealing to the creative and fun side of consumers. Brand teams remain concerned that their creative agency, possibly motivated by awards, will take their brand communication in an abstract (read confusing and potentially alienating) direction.
On the other side, creative agencies lament the lack of more edgy communication (read creative frustration). They claim signs of the growing sophistication of Chinese consumers provide clients the opportunity to present more creative and humorous content to differentiate and emotionalize their brand.
There are signs that the decisive push for humor will come from Chinese consumers themselves.
When it comes to the internet, a major focus of local portal and bulletin boards is humor. Expressed through a number of different styles including satirical rhymes, reworked images and short parody films, popular content is disseminated rapidly throughout the Chinese online community.
Examples include the wildly popular cult of Little Fatty, where online users used the image of a plump high school student to create countless comedic scenarios. Thousands of online users shared and manipulated Little Fatty images re-inserting his face so he became Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Orlando Bloom in Lord of the Rings and even a captured Saddam Hussein.
Another example is the sensation surrounding Hu Ge's twenty-minute spoof film The Bloody Case That Started From A Steam Bun. The film presented a ruthless parody of famed Chinese director Chen Kaige's much-heralded blockbuster The Promise. The mass circulation and popularity of the online work almost entirely hijacked Chen's attempts to promote his new film to the Chinese public.
The popularity and success of consumer-generated campaigns shows a public that may be looking for ads with a little more fun. Campaigns inviting consumers to produce short films and create images, like those of Pepsi and 7up, have been dominated by entries that focus on humor and off-the-wall scenarios. This style of campaign has been particularly popular with younger consumers.
Signs are good that a consumer-inspired move towards more fun advertising could be on the cards.
In June, Jerry Clode joined Flamingo International as project director, Asia/Pacific, based in Singapore. Before that, he was a senior research consultant at Anovax Marketing and Research Consultants, based in Shanghai.