Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2012

The good, the bad, the ugly – and the winners

Published in Mar-Apr 2012
Jimmy Lam on bad ads that have made China’s social media cringe; yet China recently won its first Grand Prix in Cannes.
A simple, creative idea: JWT Shanghai created this award-winning ad for Samsonite.
A simple, creative idea: JWT Shanghai created this award-winning ad for Samsonite.

Being a frequent business traveller and an advertising creative veteran, it is instinctive for me to switch on the local TV channel to watch the ads every time I check into a hotel room. Irrespective of the city, from sophisticated to developing markets, I often see some really bad ads, which make me wonder why advertisers spend money on expensive airtime to put out such revolting pieces of communication that promise to turn people off. Yet, it is not difficult for anyone to spot bad and ugly ads on billboards on the way from the airport to the hotel, as well as on primetime TV and on the front pages of the local dailies delivered to one’s room.

It is part of the reality in any market, be it London, New York or Tokyo. China, the world’s second largest economy, with two-digit GDP growth year-on-year, is no exception. One always comes across the good, the bad and the ugly in marketing communication creativity.

China recently won its first Grand Prix at the last Cannes International Festival of Creativity, with a press ad developed by the Shanghai office of an international ad agency for a well known international luggage brand. It is a simple creative idea which came from a strong product usage insight, brilliantly crafted like a handwoven Persian carpet. To have obtained the majority vote from among over 20 jurors who also happen to be discerning creative leaders from the four corners of the world, with diversified cultural backgrounds, is a testimony to creative excellence. The example of a good ad coming out of China.

However, seeing China as a single mega market can be deceiving. The differences between market sophistication (not to mention, the dialects spoken, the different cuisines, clothes and daily living habits) can be huge, in the same way that one would expect differences among consumers in western, northern, eastern and southern Europe. For any marketer to think that Shanghai is China would be detrimental.

####Jimmy Lam on bad ads that have made China’s social media cringe; yet China recently won its first Grand Prix in Cannes

There are countless local and provincial media and satellite TV channels, all of which are under strict state control when it comes to ideology and political sensitivity. Having said this, behind the tight rules there are always loopholes and the loopholes grow bigger the further away one gets from the Beijing central government. For the sake of political correctness, I will not include the visual of the three-minute TVC I am about to write about, and which was first aired on a provincial satellite TV channel. Later the ad was labelled by China’s social media as a bad ad that would be difficult to match. Just by reading the script of the voice over one can imagine how bad this TV ad was.

“…Here is the focal point of the world… Here is the forefront of agricultural science and technology… Here is where the Global 500 companies reside… The production base for XXX, run by YYY International Group… Surrounded by 5,000 members of the Special Forces, here is where every US President to have ever taken office has come in person to visit… Here is what supports the US agriculture industry, making the world’s agriculture industry go further and higher… Mr so-and-so, CEO of the YYY International Group has the same standing as the President of the US… In all previous US presidential election campaigns, whoever was supported by YYY International Group became the most powerful presidential candidate… In US top secret files, XXX is ranked number one along with nuclear weapons…

It changes the agriculture industry of a country like nuclear weapons… Its raw material is the source of ‘80 kinds of scarce minerals’ essential to the production of mainframe computers… Under 30,000 degrees celsius precision refining… one kilogramme of XXX raw material is worth over $5,000,000… XXX enabled 68 countries to advance the modernisation of their agricultural industry five years ahead... Every day there are 3,000 chartered trains, 1,000 freighters, 500 cargo planes, fully loaded with XXX sent around the clock to 129 countries around the world…”

Now, the average TV audience may not able to tell if those were tall claims or identify whether some of the footage was copyright free or not.

I simply cannot believe that an average audience would be interested in knowing the offerings or even remember the name of such a company after watching the ad; that is if they had not already switched the channel.

Bad ads burn money fast. Every Chinese New Year, things almost come to a standstill because it is a thousand year old tradition to be with one’s family, at least during New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. All of us are aware of China’s huge population and that it is still a TV dominated market; added to this is the widespread internet access to video. It is therefore easy to imagine what it is like when almost the entire population is watching the same TV programme, something which happens every Chinese New Year, when Chinese Central TV (CCTV) airs the much-anticipated Spring Festival Gala, a variety show featuring the hottest entertainers from the Greater China region.

Advertisers bid astronomically huge amounts of money to air their ads during the commercial break; it is like the Super Bowl in the US. Yet, many advertisers choose to run really ugly ads, like this company which positioned itself as the world’s biggest wool manufacturer (something not difficult to achieve thanks to the sheer size of China’s population). As one of the official partners of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this company ran a one-minute TVC during the Spring Festival Gala. It was a still TV billboard showing the company name and the logo of the Beijing Olympics with the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac rapidly popping in and out, one after the other. Every time the zodiac sign changed, the voiceover blasted out the name of the sign, the name of the company and the fact that the company was the official partner of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – i.e. repeating this message 12 times in 60 seconds. Many in the audience watching this spot thought there was a technical glitch at the CCTV channel. This ad became a hot topic on the internet and was declared to be the worst TVC of all time. (Although the advertisers did get value for the money they spent running such a bad ad, it turned into the most talked about ad, albeit in a negative way.)

When it comes to creativity in marketing and communications, it is still a mixed bag in China. Flooded with more ugly and bad ads than good ones.

Jimmy Lam is Chairman Asia, S.I. Partners.