Marketers sell products; they don't end oppression

LETTER FROM NEFF: In Russia, China, advertisers still must bow to the state

By Published on .

I once did an interview with former Procter & Gamble Chairman-CEO John Pepper in which he waxed enthusiastic about how advertising generally and Olay particularly were making life better for Chinese consumers.

Now, one is used to hearing such things from P&G and marketers generally. After all, P&G's mission statement is: "We make every day better."

But, cynical journalist that I am, what struck me is that he really believed it. And I only wished I could.

I'm sure Olay's war on the seven signs of aging is making life better for Chinese women. It's just that those benefits seem swamped by the drawbacks of life in a totalitarian society.

That's not the fault of P&G or any U.S. advertiser. But as search marketers Google, Yahoo and MSN get pilloried for complicity with Chinese government repression, it seems the broader marketing community gets off pretty light.

Olay is the most heavily advertised brand in China. P&G is the biggest advertiser on state media, which props up the totalitarian regime. In the case of China, the money does pass through brokers on the way to the government, but it still ends up there.

Dictatorships are often where the action is for global marketers. The very democratic societies of Western Europe offer little organic growth. Largely democratic Latin America, India and Eastern Europe grow faster, true. But China and increasingly repressive Russia are two of the biggest prizes in the developing world.

And while media there is relatively cheap, governments may be recognizing their growing power to milk multinational marketers for all they can. Russian TV rates are set to rise 35% this year, according to Deutsche Bank analyst William Schmitz, as the Russian government reduces commercial time from 20 minutes an hour to 15 on the largely state-owned networks.

China has similar limits on commercial minutes. They are routinely disregarded, notes former P&G China hand turned Dutch media consultant Huib Bouma, but subject to enforcement crackdowns at the government's whim.

A good dictatorship not only can make the trains run on time but also control commercial clutter while boosting media revenue.

In fairness, many multinationals do spend money on marketing that helps people, such as toothpaste marketers P&G and Colgate, which run significant public-health promotions that also happen to expand their markets in developing countries. In reality, some of their agency executives privately wish they'd do more-particularly regarding women in countries where they're oppressed.

In theory, commerce lifts all boats and spurs democratic impulses. In practice, challenging the powers that be is not on the agenda for marketers in dictatorships. You don't drive hard bargains on media when the guy on the other side of the table can put you in jail because all the TV networks are owned by relatives of the ruling party, as one package-goods executive once pointed out to me.

In short, search marketers in China are just a few among many who go along to get along.
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