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China is the fastest growing media market in the world. Advertising spending has grown from effectively zero in 1979 to an estimated $3.6 billion in 1996, with no end in sight. Revenues increased tenfold from 1990-95 alone. Advertising by foreign companies is also increasing geometrically, spawning new opportunities for foreign marketers.

Television and print media advertising in China are two of the world's greatest marketing bargains.

Media growth has closely followed larger changes in China's overall economy. China's state-controlled media are steadily being privatized, as the iron rice bowl is giving way to the realities of a market-controlled economy. By most measures, China is the fastest growing economy in the world, and many multinational companies are eager to advertise their products and services to this potentially lucrative market. This past year has seen another exponential rise in advertising by multinational companies such as Boeing, Motorola and Philip Morris.

As foreign companies have entered the Chinese market, they have opened new avenues of communication within Chinese media. Many of China's estimated 6,000 periodicals will now accept advertising from multinational companies, even if they have never before run an ad.

Television stations are proliferating as well. Each of China's 30 provinces has at least one network and China's superstation, CCTV, claims audiences of 600 million people during prime time. Forty percent of households have a color TV, but there is a dearth of good Chinese programming and, therefore, a willingness to embrace the infomercial.

Looking into the multimedia future, China's current base of 50,000 Internet users is bound to increase at off-the-chart rates, bringing new opportunities to advertisers that can hardly be imagined today. China could well be-come the advertising powerhouse of the 21st century, given its dual advantages of leapfrogging technology and the world's largest contiguous unilingual market.

A measure of the growth in advertising in China has been recent efforts by the Chinese government to regulate content. In the early '80s, there were virtually no restrictions on what advertisers could claim, as long as they didn't do it in a suggestive manner or, as one publication once warned me, use dragons.

Now the advertising department of the State Administration of Industry & Commerce is China's advertising watchdog. Since 1995, and probably for the good of everyone involved, a marketer can no longer claim that its product cures cancer or adds years to your life if it cannot prove it. Ads for health care-related items are under particular scrutiny, so expect an approval process for pharamaceutical or medical equipment ads.

Also expect the veracity of your ad to be checked. Chinese publications assume liability for the advertising they carry. We even have had newspapers in China call us about incorrect phone numbers in ads.

Recent political tensions between the U.S. and China have not stemmed the steady flow of ads that we see every day from U.S. companies and their agencies. But cultural and linguistic differences can create hidden obstacles.

All ads must be in the politically correct form of simplified Chinese, except for China Daily, an English-language publication. Pay particular attention to the translation of your ad. While Mandarin is the prevalent spoken dialect for business throughout China, there are two scripts for written Chinese characters.

Simplified Chinese script should be used in China, but traditional Chinese should be used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. For many publications, all Chinese characters must be in simplified form with the exception of company names, which may be written in either simplified or traditional form.

It's also a good idea to check the consistency of the company's Chinese name. One company we recently checked had six names in use-obviously a problem if you're trying to establish a corporate identity.

Audited circulation figures have only recently been available for advertisers, a result of the end of government's management and subsidy of publications. Publications now rely on circulation to boost ad rates.

Companies that can ride out the ups and downs of a rapidly expanding economy to establish a solid reputation and consistent corporate image will reap the benefits for years to come. But no one in the media business can ignore China for long and remain a world-class player.

Lyric Hughes is president of T.L.I. International Corp., a Chicago-based international marketing communications company. She has been working on foreign advertising in China since 1979.

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