Brillat-Savarin once said: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." My spin on that is: “Show me your ads, and I’ll tell you about the state of your society.”
Let me start out by saying that I only speak a little Mandarin, and I don’t read any Chinese at all. Despite that, for 3 weeks this September I spent a lot of time looking at Chinese ads – on billboards, bus shelters, in subways and cabs. I also spent a lot of time watching Chinese TV, paying as much attention to the commercials as the shows. What I saw says a lot about the state of Chinese society and its current values.
Let’s start out with what I didn't see in all of these Chinese ads:
Beer I didn’t see any beer ads. Beer is a major component of the US advertising mix, so the lack of beer commercials and billboards really stood out. It’s not that there isn’t beer in China (both imported and domestic), and other forms of alcohol. Drinking just isn’t as big a part of the culture. Eating is the dominant social activity and alcohol is more of a footnote.
Food Even though eating is such a big part of the Chinese culture, the number of ads for restaurants and food brands was relatively low. Although fast food chains (many of them Western) seem to be everywhere in the cities here, the dominant food culture is still one of individual restaurants and home cooking based on core ingredients. I saw a few ads for “quick foods”, like instant noodles, and some for popular beverage brands (mostly bottled or canned tea products), but that was about it.
Financial Services Despite the amount of money pouring into China, absent are the ads for brokerage services, financial advisors, money managers and even (for the most part) banks and credit cards. True, the consumer-level financial system is still developing, but I believe this is more due to a lack of trust that many Chinese feel towards those around them. This makes sense, given that theirs is a society that has experienced two major revolutions in the past 60 years, and is still in the process of developing consumer protections and shaking out large amounts of fraud and corruption.
So what types of ads did I see in China? The three categories that seemed to dominate Chinese TV advertising are:
Milk & Yogurt Milk advertising in the US is mostly handled through collectives, with generic (but often fantastic) “Milk” commercials aiming to boost overall consumption. Which brand of milk you get largely depends on which dairy supplies the store you walk into. In China, most milk is distributed in either dehydrated or shelf-stable form, and there are multiple brands in heavy competition. Milk ads are a major segment, with a strong family focus. With recent scandals related to milk safety, its no surprise that brands are working overtime to build individual reputations.
Vitamins The number of Chinese TV commercials for vitamins, including calcium and digestive aids was truly impressive. They ranged from adult-focused ads for brands like Centrum, to numerous Chinese brands of children’s vitamins, to enzyme-laden yogurt drinks (which have just begun to gain popularity in the US). Combined with the milk ads, this paints the picture of a society that has emerged from a focus on subsistence and has begun to focus on optimization, especially when it comes to the lives and health of their children.
Beauty products Skin care and hair care products dominate the ad landscape when it comes to beauty products. Almost all of the ads I saw in this segment were targeted to women. Rather than playing up the colorful cosmetics and diversity of style that Western beauty ads do, most of the Chinese ads emphasize smooth, straight, silky hair and clean, smooth, bright skin. From what I understand, rather than a new development, this is a continuation of a historical standard of female beauty and ritual.
Taken together, the ads I saw (and didn’t see) paint the picture of a culture that is hopeful and positive, paving the way for its future while trying to hold on to the values of the past. It also highlights a lifestyle that is, in many ways, simpler and less entwined than the common American lifestyle.
That said, it's a society that is changing rapidly. I don't know what kind of changes we will see in the next few years, but I know we'll be able to tell just by turning on a TV in China.