Korean Advertising: Just Beautiful Women Holding Bottles?

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Some words of wisdom from Londoner Bruce Haines, currently head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide (제일기획):

Q) What’s one big difference between advertising in Korea and the UK?

A) Celebrity endorsement – a huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people. Of course, it’s not uncommon in the West for stars to endorse a product, but generally the ad has a core idea and makes use of the celebrity endorsement to enhance the original concept. Not so in Korea. In its crudest form, Korean advertising degenerates to beautiful people holding a bottle. This is one of the things holding back the reputation of Korean advertising worldwide.  (10 Magazine)

At first, I thought “Korean advertising degenerates to celebrities holding a bottle” would have been more accurate myself. And regardless of the rather unflattering picture of Wondergirls singer Sohee (안소희) I chose above!^^

But Haines’s wording does have a nice ring to it. And however obvious his point may be to readers, I confess that it would never have occurred to me personally. Spending most of my adult life in Korea, he made me realize that I fail to notice Korean advertising’s peculiarities sometimes.

Which got me thinking about others. An obvious one, at least to a blogger forcing himself to include more images of men in his posts(!), was that although male celebrities are increasingly used to advertise alcohol in Korea, I really struggled to find any men endorsing a soft drink to illustrate this post with.

Yes: even after half an hour spent flicking through my old Korean advertising magazines, this was still the only one I could think of (although as I write this, this recent one for Powerade is coming to mind; but the actors are not celebrities and thanks to Seri for pointing out that it features the group Epik High). If anyone can think of any more, then please let me know.* But if not, then overwhelmingly having women in Korean soft drink commercials aimed at women seems to provides additional evidence for their preference for passive approaches to losing weight, in the sense that “drink this and get a body like mine” – rather than, say, “drink this as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle” – is the only narrative offered.

( Source: unknown )

Of course, soft drink commercials would say that. But the point is that this narrative of passivity is echoed in Korean advertising for a surprising array of products aimed at women.

In particular, as reader Seamus Walsh recently commented, it’s strange (and a pity) just how many Korean female singers get great bodies by dancing, only then to appear in advertisements claiming that it was all the result of drinking, say, a watery tea. A good illustration of which is the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스; above), who – to my great dismay – recently choose to endorse the diet company Juvis (쥬비스), a company I’d already criticized back in February.

And for alternatives? Again I’d struggle, as female celebrities advocating something involving mere exercise instead are unfortunately very rare, either personally or via endorsing related products like exercise equipment or sports clothing. BoA (보아) is one, but can anyone think of any others?

Lest you feel that I’m overemphasizing and/or exaggerating Korean differences regardless though, none of that is to deny that marketing to Korean women does indeed still share many similarities with that of Western countries for instance. And apologies for rehashing a topic already familiar to many readers, albeit from a new and – to me – rather unexpected angle.

But the differences are real, and as a final surprising demonstration of this, consider how gendered yogurt is in Western countries for instance, as demonstrated hilariously by American comedian Sarah Haskins below (see here for many more videos like it). As far as I can tell though, so far yogurt has yet to become “the official food of women” in Korea:

Is that difference because the idea of, well, “drinking” for health is so ingrained in the Korean psyche? Or perhaps for some other reason?

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p.s. For examples of what Korean advertising does have to offer the world, see my “Creative Korean Advertising” series here.

*As soon as my head hit the pillow, a few more examples came to mind, and I realized I needed to make a greater distinction between different kinds of soft drinks: advertisements for tea-drinks at least do indeed almost exclusively feature women, but those for sodas are more mixed, and – with the exception of laxatives – the more medicine-like a health-drink is marketed as, and to be found in a pharmacy, the more likely it is to feature and be intended for men. But I think the distinction I identify in the text is still generally true, and as further evidence for that I suggest thinking of what celebrities you know of that have regularly endorsed any form of soft-drink. I’d wager that while several women will come to mind, you’d still be hard-pressed to think of any men!

24 thoughts on “Korean Advertising: Just Beautiful Women Holding Bottles?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Korean Advertising: Beautiful “People” Holding a Bottle? Or Women? « The Grand Narrative -- Topsy.com

  2. I moved to Korea a few months ago. My friend (male, Korean) stayed overnight recently, I was really surprised when he grabbed a yogurt (in a pink, breast-cancer ribboned container) from my fridge for breakfast.

    “Are you sure? You want yogurt? I can cook something…”
    “No, yogurt is good. You are tired, don’t cook!”

    I didn’t realize why I was so surprised that he liked yogurt until I read this post. Advertising is very weird.

    • I was surprised too by the video to be honest. I have heard the yogurt=women connection before from comedians though, pondering how women found out it was good for relieving yeast infections(?) exactly, but that was back in 1999, and I never realized just how strong the link was in my mind until now!

      I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t more Korean ads like those in the future though: it seems like an untapped market.

  3. The yogurts that are supposed to target your gut often have older males in the commercials, along with all the “stamina” drinks. And off the top of my head I can think of a bunch of coffee ads that feature primarily or solely men . . . will try and dig them up for you. . .

    • Thanks, and you’re quite right: soft-drinks advertising in is really much more segmented than I make out in the post. The note at the end is an attempt to acknowledge that.

      Originally I planned for the post to be no more than passing on that quotation of Bruce Haines’s to honest, but as I searched for advertisements with Kim Tae-hee holding a bottle (the first you thought of too, yes?^^) it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of any men doing so, and in turn that a core group of female celebrirties seem to endorse literally anything and everything, whereas male celbrities seem to get much less exposure. Then I looked…and ended up writing until 2am, when instead I should have slept on it really: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence after all, and like you mention, coffee ads are an obvious (when wakeful!) exception.

      With allowances for variations between different forms (and media types), I still do think that its overwhelmingly women endorsing soft drinks though. But I’ll try to restrain myself before making any generalizations late at night in the future, and by this stage of blogging I should really be providing empirical evidence for any gut feelings I have (no pun inteneded). I’ll see what I can do.

      p.s. I did say that it’s overwhelmingly men in stamina drink advertisments though!^^

    • I don’t think James mentioned coffee in his article, but jumping in with evidence anyway? ;-)

      Those Sonata commercials which even have a guy who kind of reads tough to me.

      I’m not a courant enough to tell if coffee ads focus on either stamina or weight loss?

  4. Ok, found a few dudes hawking drinks . . .
    First, we have a pair of dudes, who are models or singers or somesuch – we’ll have to ask a kpop expert – selling “aide” in the second and third commercial here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hX_FMCffL1g), which I know were part of a longer series.
    Of course 안성기 is exteremely well known for his long-running series of maxim coffee commercials . . .as has 김범. Dang, Maxwell House managed to rope in 조인성, 원빈, and강동원 for a series of can coffee commercials(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYvpIoLLpZ0&feature=related). 원빈 also did some solo ads for maxim (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYvpIoLLpZ0&feature=related) and french cafe (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1v3R6Bggx8&feature=related)

  5. to Gomushin Girl: the first ad you reported is featuring two members of Super Junior (SuJu) boysband. What made me laugh (cause I never stumbled upon those CFs) is that although the second guy, Kim HeeChul, is well-known for being a flower boy, having and extremely effeminate behaviour, being a hardcore fan of the Wondergirls etc… – all of this leading some people to think he might be a closeted gay – the first guy, KangIn is equally famous for being quite a drinker, a ladiesman (nunnas included) and overall very far away from all that “sweet” and “girly” imagery.
    I totally get why HeeChul was chosen but KangIn … I guess it was a few years ago, cause now Mr KangIn has to get himself out of legal trouble for fighting in bars and such sooo…

    Just to go back to the initial topic of yogurt advertising. When I was younger (I can’t really recall the exact year) there was a quite popular tv ad for yogurt and not just a yogurt but a fat free one. Of course this brand was till then only using female models/actresses for her campaigns, but what made me remember this particular ad is that this time they chose a famous actor, Richar Berry, to promote the product.
    Here’s the ad (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pf5DCCEfyAo) and basically what he says: “OMG, Richard Berry eating a yogurt?! A man doesn’t have the right to eat a sveltess (name of the brand)?! why not? It’s fresh, smooth and fruity, don’t believe me? Try it…”
    And since then I’ve never EVER seen a man in a yogurt ad EXCEPT when recently Danone came up with Actimel a drinking yogurt which claims to strengthen your immunitary defenses. Well, I guess men can’t be featured in this type of ads unless it’s in the goal to shock you to the core like in my first example or if the product includes some type of science or technology.

  6. I don’t usually comment but the powerade commercial you posted has Tablo from epik high who’s very popular. I generally hate all Korean advertisements with celebrities, they just make me angry. Even living in the UK, the only ad I like that doesn’t make me rage at my TV is the http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxXIhM9nd2o Vicks Frst Defence. Just because I’ve always wanted to do that.

    I can’t stand the over use of celebrities for Korean marketisation. That’s their biggest fort! Marketise marketise marketise. Weren’t school uniforms banned for marketisation from celebs cause of the credi crunch? Whatever.

    It’s more annoying people buy into it. MV Advertisements? Are you kidding me? I have trouble watching 15 second ads let alone watching a whole music video telling me to drink beer or have a lollipoop phone. I learn nothing about the taste, ingredients or in the phones case, it’s specs. I sit through that (which would be my own coice) then have to go look it up.

    Longest ad in the UK at the moment I think is the Wii/DS advertisement.

    The yoghurt thing is painfully true. Damn if I could find another show mocking Gendered ads… one sec… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwrK-foCTaQ

    that video is what British advertisement is. I saw the first man (except for that bald cook who acts really fruity – excuse that word but I can’t describe his behaviour any other way) which was years ago, on TV, WASHING, NOT DRINKING, NOT SHAVING. I was so shocked, genuinely.

    Activia is the example of the gendered advert but recently they tried putting a man in there. But guess what? This man, was made feminine. “That *myyy* favourite flavour” and then all the women go “ooooooohhhh”. Sorry I can’t find the ad (too lazy). It just makes me want to slap something!

    Muller is the only yoghurt that markets for everyone… but they don’t claim anything scientific so that’s o.k. for them.

  7. I’M A DIRTY LIAR T_T


    Although he wouldn’t get me to buy these products. He’s too funny with his face doing all that face stuff he does.

    *dirty liar leaves hanging in shame*

    and I admit when I first saw this ad I cried from laughter

    • Ugh one more time and I’ll shut up ( see why i don’t comment? One she goes off it’s like a hurricaine!!) uhm WHy do they do “making of…” for commercials? Just why? and commercial teasers. Come on now.

      • Thanks for pointing out my mistake about Epik High and the Powerade advertisement, and for the other examples. I’ll write a longer reply when I get home from work sorry, but just quickly while I’m at my desk, I too have noticed and frequently wondered about all the “making of” commercials, as personally it completely ruins the fantasy element to them. I’ll ask my students’ opinions in the next class!

        But please don’t feel obliged to shut up!^^ Your comments were interesting, and as you can see I sorely need the fresh perspectives and the critiques!

        Update 9:54: Too tired after playing with my daughters for the last 3 hours to comment more tonight sorry, all the both despairing and perplexed at why they didn’t both go to sleep like a light at 6:30 as per usual. Did I mention that I only had 5 hours sleep for the last nights too. Wanted to nap and then get to work here, but instead I’ve only just stopped building lego houses and playing “tigers”. Rowr….^^

  8. This is my first time commenting, thus I’d like to say your doing an amazing job. I did a senior thesis on Gender/Sexuality in Korean TV Dramas so your blog’s topic is close to my interests.

    That brief introduction aside I’d like to post just a couple more commercials that basically support your general idea. – “The more medicine-like a health-drink is marketed as, and to be found in a pharmacy, the more likely it is to feature and be intended for men.”

    The first two are vitamin drink commercials that I’ve seen, one is still being played, the other looks old. Again, they both reiterate the point that the drinks are meant to be masculine, and so represent male sexuality and attractiveness.

    Just to hammer the point home both commercials involve a guy impressing the equally cute/sexualized woman. (Granted, who doesn’t love a biker version of Bi).

    The last one is pretty random, I just know 이민호 does a lot of advertisement since his days of Boys over Flower. I also drink a diet Pepsi almost everyday so I am forced to see his overexposed face o.O. There is not a lot to it beyond the possible argument that he’s standing next to a large phallic Pepsi bottle at the end. Granted that very idea is what started the whole post in the first place, ad concepts representing only a celebrity.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0_hsI5g-Dk&feature=related

    Anyway, keep up the amazing work!

    • Thanks very much for the compliments, and for passing all of those on. I’m literally about to turn this computer off and go to bed after I type this sorry, so this will have to be rather short, but while I’m still here I’ve just realized that I did actually already write a lot about the first two videos you linked to in this post. Trust me to forget those when I wrote this post though! (sigh)

      Meanwhile, I’m about to start an MA thesis on gender and sexuality in Korean movies myself (hopefully I’ll be formally registered by next March), so I’m very keen in talking to you much more in the future! You don’t happen to live in Busan by any chance?^^

      p.s. If you’re curious about the exact topic, and if you haven’t read the post already, then it’ll be something along these lines.

  9. lee joonki- some pomegranite drink. still aimed at women

    i only skimmed the post but..
    won bin- those coffee commericals with shin mina lately.
    i think won bin also endorsed pocari sweat

    i’ve noticed drinks like 2% water and pocari sweat tend to include male hawkers, meant for a male audience, too

    while i think soju is more sexualized and has many female hawkers, i think drinks like whiskey tend to have male advertisers. i think at one point in my life i’ve seen a korean celebrity endorsing some sort of scotch.

    the brown eyed girls advert is rather funny. i couldn’t figure it out for the life of me what it’s for if i didn’t know korean.

    i didn’t realize that yogurt was such a sexualized food. i know plenty of western men who eat yogurt without hesitation or hang ups. but i do recall a male saying that he thought parfaits were for girls. i guess it’s a rather popular diet food, too

    • it doesn’t surprise me that pom drinks are aimed at women . . . there’s a long association, not just in Korea but in the west as well between pomergranites and women, particularly fertility and proper working of our “lady parts”
      Plenty of men eat yogurt here, too . . .but I think in both places its been slightly more associated with women, both for reasons of diet and a mild association between yogurt and vaginal tract health for women. That said, there’s a Korean brand “Gut” that mostly markets itself as a stomach remedy aimed at men and older people in general. They used to have some pretty hilariously awful infomercials where they animated what happens in the intestine both with and without the wonderous intervention of their product, which is supposed to help stomach ulcers.

  10. “Spending most of my adult life in Korea, he made me realize that I fail to notice Korean advertising’s peculiarities sometimes.”

    One peculiarity I noticed back in the 90s was the chubby, plain ajoshi / pretty, slender woman couple often seen in ads for products and services aimed at both sexes, such as a Samsung camera or a vacation destination. I haven’t really noticed a similar gender gap in US advertising although Hollywood is noted for movies and TV programs featuring unattractive, working-class men with hot women. Two examples are the movie “Knocked Up,” in which glamorous TV personality Katherine Heigl gets pregnant after a drunken hookup with an ugly weirdo and then marries him and the TV show “The King of Queens,” which persuaded its audience that FM-cover-worthy hot Leah Remini would marry an obese, blue-collar worker.

  11. i think US adverts where a woman of esteem dates a man who is considered of less esteem is more complicated because of the diverse population that exists there. for instance, kanye west talks about getting with a white girl in one of his songs. there’s a parallel to me.
    i think, in general, beautiful modernized westernized women have always been considered some sort of fulfillment of masculinity for males. not like “i want to take responsibility for this woman” type of thing but, “i’m a real man if i conquer this woman” type of thing.

    another thing i noticed about yogurt is that it is marketed towards children! i’d even say children’s yogurt like danimals and go gurt is marketed more towards active boys than girls. funny. yogurt is marketed towards everyone (women, the elderly, children) but adult men! is it bc it’s a soft food, i wonder? i noticed applesauce is not marketed towards men either

  12. I’ve been following your blog for months, and I really enjoyed this article :) I was totally SICK of all those Korean ads that objectify women (the applehip one, for example, where it TELLS me to apologize to my butt for some reason, had me crying out in anger at the man who was holding the plaque up at the first scene-”why doesn’t he take care of his ass first?”) after my 2 years in Canada. So it came as a shock to me that when there were ads for drinks, women were always just holding the product rather than drinking it or whatever. It’s almost like the woman is just a prop designed to take the viewers’ minds away from the product and convey the message that if you don’t drink this, you’ll be fat/ugly/poor and etc.

  13. Oh and another thing I’d noticed (sorta unrelated to the post but I’ve been thinking of this question for months) why does the Korean media overrate the success of its singers abroad? i thought it was totally irresponsible and filled with false nationalism.

  14. Ya know that Korea isn’t the only media outlet that uses these tactics. In rseponse to a previous comment about how yougurt is not marketed towards men, you have it right on the nose! For some reason there seems to exist a persona around such item’s that should be a multi-lateral product that indicates it’s more of a feminine or children’s product than anything else. Maybe if they got like some WWE superstars holding a go gurt…hey there light bulb just went on!

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