This Chinese Public Service Ad Brought to You By a Talking Fetus

Spot Asks: When a Chinese Baby Takes Its First Breath, How Clean Is That Air?

By Published on .

The environment, especially air pollution, can be a sensitive topic in China. So it's interesting to see a public service message from the state-owned TV broadcaster that raises a provocative question: What's it like for a newborn baby to inhale China's air?

The spot from BBH China also brings a rather startling image to a network known for traditional programming. It features a talking fetus, a concept inspired by a 1990s music video from Massive Attack.

The government-run broadcaster, CCTV, had approached agencies looking for spots on what the environment will mean for future generations.

"Credit goes to CCTV for bringing that message to all these people," said Yu Kung, ECD of BBH China. "It is a very sensitive issue, and it needed to be handled with care." The environmental message that closes the spot is subtle, since "we didn't want to preach to people, and we didn't want to be scaremongering either," as Mr. Kung said.

Air pollution is something people think about every day in China. Just this month, the northern city of Shenyang recorded levels of harmful particles that were 56 times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

China's leaders want to raise environmental issues, but are apparently still figuring out how much public discussion they are comfortable with. In March, a documentary about air pollution got hundreds of millions of views on Chinese online video platforms and won praise from the environment minister. But a week after it was posted, copies were abruptly taken off Chinese internet sites, reportedly on orders of the Communist Party's central propaganda department.

A baby's first breath

Mr. Kung said the concept for the CCTV spot stemmed from "one of those thoughts that really stop you in your tracks. When you are born and you take in the first ever breath of air that will hit your lungs, if you are a baby born in China, how clean will that air be?"

The exec creative diretor remembered the Massive Attack video for the song "Teardrop," with a baby singing in the womb; he called it "hypnotic."

"There was kind of a beauty and a peace to that environment, being protected in the womb," Mr. Kung said. For the environmental spot, the agency used that image of a baby in a safe haven, wondering what the outside world is like.

"Giving the baby a voice allows us to talk about the environment from an angle that had never been heard before," Mr. Kung said. The CGI baby was produced with production house Volt.

Lear Ma, CCTV's senior brand manager, said in a news release that the spot's "refreshing creative idea lets our audience feel CCTV's innovation on a topic that is close to our audience's hearts."

CCTV often asks agencies to pitch ideas for public service spots; past briefs have focused on the need to take care of the elderly, or on the "Chinese Dream," a frequent trope of President Xi Jinping.

In this case at least two agencies were tapped, giving the opportunity to see how two different creative teams followed through on the same brief. Fred & Farid Shanghai filmed a spot showing what happened when a schoolteacher asked her students to draw a picture of their homes; watch that approach here.

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