Korean Sociological Image #85: What’s that old, fat, bald, white guy doing here?

S Diary Busan Play Audience(Sources, edited: Interpark, Miscellaneous Maddness)

GLASGOW (n.): The feeling of infinite sadness engendered when walking through a place filled with happy people fifteen years younger than yourself.

The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (1983)

Ever been tempted to watch S Diary, because of its eye-catching posters? Don’t. It’s decidedly less raunchy than it looks, even by 2004 standards, and it’s strangely serious for a romantic comedy. Instead, watch it for what it is: “a simple exploration of a woman’s past romantic relationships and how they influenced her,” and for the insights — and confidence in future relationships — that can be gained from doing so. (Also, for Kim Sun-a‘s suburb acting.)

Customer Demographics BusanAs my first Korean play then, and the first night out my wife and I will have had together since we had kids, we could do much worse. But we noticed something strange when we went to check the dates and times: scroll down the page on the ticketing site, and you’ll notice an age and sex breakdown of those customers who’ve already bought tickets online, as seen on the right.

This one is for the Busan play; interestingly, the sex ratio is reversed for the Seoul one (click here if you are reading this after its run has ended). Also, the data may not be entirely accurate: when my wife does buy two tickets, will those be counted as two 35 year-old women in the data (which would make no sense), or will she be asked to—possibly even required to—provide more information about the other attendee?

We’ll let you know, once my sister-in-law tells us when she’s available to babysit(!). Either way, it turns out that providing these statistics may be standard for online booking sites in Korea, as indicated by a similar breakdown for online tickets to the The Fault in Our Stars movie on the CGV website. It gives the same results regardless of the cinema chosen, so I presume that they’re nationwide figures (again interestingly, the male to female ratio is the exact opposite of what you’d expect for a romance movie):

The Fault in Our Stars -- Customer Demographics(Source: CGV)

I’d appreciate it if readers can send any more examples, and/or let me know if they’re also available when booking tickets online in other countries. If not, and they turn out to be unique to Korea and/or (I suspect) the East Asian region, what significance do you think that has? Does it speak to any wider feature of Korean society or culture?

Of course, Koreans are not alone in tending to avoid events where they’re likely to be significantly older or younger than the majority of other participants or audience members. The main question is, why do Korean companies make this information available to them? Is it simply testament to the importance of age in Korean relationships? Is it because more people would go if they felt the audience matched their own demographic, than be dissuaded because it didn’t? Or it is just useful extra information given on a whim, which shouldn’t be overanalyzed? Please let me know your thoughts.

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here.)

Squee~!

society6 t-shirtsAhem. But if you’ll please allow me to indulge myself after my last mammoth post, I’m inordinately happy that my t-shirts from the US arrived today…

From left to right: Xena by Heymonster; Fundamental by Sophiedoodle; and Vintage Lego Space Man Minifig by Greg Koenig, all $22. Normally they cost $10 each to send to Korea, but I took advantage of a free delivery special last month.

Seriously, it’s a hassle finding clothes which fit in Korea, and I’m not fond of the styles, so it’s good to have something that I actually want to wear for a change (the prices are comparable too, even with delivery). And I’ve been dancing to Girls Just Want to Have Fun for a good 30 years now too (my dad is a big Cyndi Lauper fan), so it was about time I paid tribute to that on a t-shirt.

See here to learn about just how revolutionary it was for the 1980s—you’ll be surprised!

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Korea’s Celebrity Obsession, Part 1: The numbers

Lee Hyori Soju Endorsement(Source: Jennifer Sundt, @Tomorrowland. Reproduced with permission)

You know there’s a lot of celebrities in Korean ads. It’s probably why you recognize so many of them, even if you hate K-pop and Korean dramas.

For something so integral to the Korean media-cultural landscape though, it’s surprising that no-one seems to have worked out just how many Korean ads do have celebrities. Months of googling and poring over the books, and still the most recent systematic surveys I’ve found were done over a decade ago.

Maybe there’s just too many to count these days?

But numbers matter. To me, because I’ve long contended that the financial imperatives of K-pop are driving its increasing sexualization and sexual objectification (although these are not necessarily negatives), with knock-on effects for the Korean media as a whole. Specifically, that because entertainment management companies make more money from groups’ endorsements than their music, that “noise marketing” and ever more shocking “sexy concepts” are required to make them stand out from other groups. But frankly, I don’t think I’ve done my due diligence in confirming all the assumptions contained in that, nor addressed all the questions they raise. For instance:

  • Do entertainment management companies indeed make more money from endorsements than music?
  • Over time, (how) has the number of celebrities in ads changed? Are K-pop stars making up more and more of them? If so, since when?
  • Does getting attention through sexy concepts invariably lead to more advertising contracts? Can it actually discourage them instead, companies concluding that overly sexualized groups don’t have the appropriate image for their family-friendly brands? Or are companies only concerned about securing the most popular, most talked-about K-pop stars, regardless of what consumers are actually saying about them?
  • If so, why? Why are K-pop stars (presumably) so effective at raising sales, even if they have no conceivable relationship to the product(s)?
  • Have all Korean ads become more sexualized and objectifying over time, or just theirs? Do sexy concepts on stage have any relationship to what we actually see in their ads?

All those questions and more will answered in this series, although, again frankly, some answers will take much longer than others (and from my perspective, I’d be much more interested in hearing your own!). Long story short, it looks like—dammit—I’m going to have to stop complaining and do a systematic survey myself, and how and when I do that will depend on if my proposed paper on precisely that gets accepted for a K-pop conference in December (I’ll keep you posted).

For now, in this post I’ll present a summary of what numbers I have found, for the sake of providing a quick and accessible resource for readers, which can be added to as more sources come up. Part 2 will be a similar, much shorter one on the economics of K-pop, and Parts 3, 4, and 5 (and so on) will discuss all the various explanations I’ve found of why Koreans are so enamored with celebrities. Which, as I’ll explain in those, turns out to be something that extends back decades, and is eerily similar to—nay, a virtual carbon copy of—what goes on in Japan.

Sorry that my first long post in a while ends up as nothing more than a glorified bibliography though, which definitely wasn’t my intention. But this is proving to be a mammoth project, much better suited to an ongoing series. And I hope that readers appreciate the need for the stats, and that some may find them useful.

B. Kliban, How to approach a book(B. Kliban. Source: Manger Paléo)

In order of when the surveys were conducted, or when the article was published:

— A study of advertisements from The Chosun-ilbo and The New York Times throughout 2000

— More Korean ads had people in them (47%) than US ones (31.9%)

— Korean ads had a greater number of celebrities (24.1%) than US ones (9.9%; both figures out of all ads surveyed)

— Of those ads with celebrities, US ones had more product-relevant celebrities (77.4%) than Korean ones did (38.3%).

  • Son, T. W. (2001). Success of advertising depends on the appropriateness of celebrity use.
    Advertising Information (Korean), November, 440-450.

— Paek, p. 136, explains of this: “Of the TV commercials screened, about 32% of the ads included celebrity endorsers, and 59% of primetime TV commercials used celebrities as endorsers.” But he doesn’t provide any more information sorry.

— A very comprehensive survey, of 7728 unduplicated television commercials in 25 countries between February 2001 and December 2003. The Korean ones examined were on MBC, between 18:30-21:30, May 18-19, 2001; and on MBC/SBS/KBS 2 between 18.00-24.00, on October 22-November 14, 2001.

— This graph of the results (p. 10) is very revealing (click to make it larger):

Commercials with celebrities, cross-country comparison, 2001-2003The author, Carolus Praet of the Otaru University of Commerce, seems like the expert on celebrity advertising in this part of the world (see here for a list of his publications). Once I get a hold of his more recent “Korea As Number One: A Multi-country Study of Celebrity Advertising Around the World,” in Proceedings of the Korean Advertising Society (KAS) Far East International Conference in Advertising, pp. 367-375 (2012), I’ll add it here.

— Study based on Korean and US television from 29 July to 2 August 2002

— 57% of Korean commercials featured a celebrity, compared to 9% of US ones

— Of those Korean celebrities, 70% were actors, actresses, and singers; only 47% of the US ones were

These results come via page 50 of Roald Maliangkay, “Catering for the Female Gaze: The Semiotics of Masculinity in Korean Advertising,” in Situations: Cultural Studies in the Asian Context, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 2013/14, pp. 43-62.

  • Hong Tack-Kim, “Characteristics, History, and Forecasts of Creativity in Korea,” in Korean Advertising: Facts and Insights, 218-274 (Seoul, KOBACO, 2007). As I type this, the PDF download isn’t working; see here for a cached version instead. It says:

— From page 272-273: “Some 2,000 television commercials are produced in Korea every year.
Among those, commercials that use famous spokesmodels account for almost 70 percent. Most of these famous spokesmodels are celebrities.”

This reference comes via page 357 of Olga Federenko, “South Korean Advertising as Popular Culture,” in The Korean Popular Culture Reader, ed. by Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe, Duke University Press 2014, pp. 341-362, who explains that “In the first decade of this century, 70-75% of Korean ads featured celebrities,” but adds in a footnote that—story of my life!—”Precise statistics are hard to find and most authors quote their estimates without providing sources.”

See also her 2012 PhD, “Tending to the ‘flower of capitalism:’ Consuming, producing and censoring advertising in South Korea of the ’00s” (download as a PDF here), in my view easily the best and most comprehensive guide to modern Korean advertising (albeit only just discovered while writing this sorry; I’ll return to it in a later post). She mentions endorsements and celebrities in passing throughout, but in footnote 22 of page 103 specifically she references Eom Nam-hyun, “FTC suggests guidelines to advertising in which celebrities appear,” Ad Starts 2009: 2009 Busan International Advertising Festival with Metro (English edition), page 10, as another example of one of those estimates. As its single, hard to find link makes me nervous, let me copy and paste it here just in case that is ever taken down:

Celebrity appearances in advertisements are a worldwide trend. It is said that 75% of Korean TV ads use celebrities as well as 70% of Japanese ads.

However, as for America, the percentage of commercials using celebrities or famous people in ads is only about 25%, which proves that in both Korea and Japan, using celebrities in ads is a general basis of the advertising creative strategy. Additionally, the celebrities’ high rate of TV commercial appearances leads into a prevailing trend in which the same celebrity shows up on several different commercials of different products.

For this, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) re-established new guidelines for putting famous people and celebrities into ads which draw our attention.

According to the guidelines, celebrities in ads have to candidly convey their opinion on the products and their thoughts about their experience of using the product.  Advertisers also must fully communicate with the celebrities about the ads. The interesting thing is that FTC asked the celebrities to be cautious about choosing ads in which they promote products.

It also stated that if the celebrities convey wrong information about products or alluring contents to the general public, the responsibility rests on them. Because of these guidelines, it is expected that celebrities will have difficulties when appearing in ads of a similar category of business and in ads of competing brands.  / Nam-Hyun Eom, Doctorate Course of Advertising, Texas University.

— “Among the 2,000 commercials produced in Korea last year, 65 percent featured celebrities. In the U.S., United Kingdom and France, the rate is less than 10 percent.”

Korea Celebrity Endorsements Hyun-bin HiteI think that’s where I got those figures for the France and the UK in one of my presentations. But, years after I first prepared the slide, now *cough* I’ve no idea where I got those figures for China and Brazil, or why I didn’t say the US was also 10%…

Either way, being unsourced, obviously I can no longer use it. Also, no offense to Hyun-bin above (he’s hardly the only offender), but I do remember why I chose his picture last month: his classic, terrible example of simply being a “beautiful person holding a bottle“…

— “In 2012, the Seoul government urged advertisers to “exercise restraint” when a study found that idols were used in 72% of ads for alcoholic drinks.”

Specifically, it said:

“서울시는 특히 주류 광고를 통해 자주 노출되는 연예인 22명 중 17명(72%ㆍ중복 제외)이 아이돌이었고, 노출빈도 1위는 탤런트 김수현, 2위 공유, 3위 피겨 선수 김연아 순으로, 이들을 모델로 한 주류 광고가 청소년에게 상당한 영향을 미치고 있다고 분석했다.”

“In particular, Seoul city discovered that out of entertainers that frequently appear in alcohol advertisements, 17 out of 22 (72%; those that appeared in more than one advertisement were excluded) were idols. The most frequently appearing were talents Kim Soo-hyeon and Gong Yoo, and athlete Kim Yuna; having these people in alcohol advertisements has a huge influence on teenagers.”

I’m not sure how “idols” were defined by the authors though (I’ll discuss definitions in a later post), and the article confusedly begins by saying that only ads on free to air TV were studied, but then discusses results from cable TV too. Also, they lumped radio and TV commercials and newspaper ads all together, which are very different mediums.

However unreliable though, I was surprised that over 9 in 10 of those alcohol ads were for beer. I would have assumed that at least half would have been for soju?

— Finally, some very recent, but again unsourced statistics from a marketing company: “The use of celebrities in advertising varies enormously around the world. It’s highest in Japan and Korea, where over 40 percent of TV ads feature celebrities, and lowest in Ukraine, Sweden, and Canada, where the proportion is under 5 percent. It is 10 percent in the U.S., and 12 percent in the UK.”

SISTAR, Bio Industy Expo Osong Korea 2014(Source: @John_F_Power. Used with permission.)

And on that note, thanks to those complete geeks amongst you still reading(!), and please feel free to ask me for PDFs of any of the sources I’ve mentioned (I have about half of them). And if any readers know of any more sources, by all means pass them on, with my heartfelt appreciation!

(KICKSTARTER) My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy: The Comic Book

Texan in Tokyo(Source, all images: Texan in Tokyo)

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

Deciding to move across the world for “love” is easy. People do it all the time. Thriving in that new country (without sabotaging your relationship), on the other hand, is a bit more difficult.

EnterMy Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy: The Comic Book.”

My Japanese Husband Thinks I'm CrazyThis comic book is the autobiographical misadventures of a native Texan freelancer (Grace) and her Japanese “salaryman” husband (Ryosuke): in comic form. From earthquakes and crowded trains, to hilarious cultural faux pas, it explores the joys of living and working abroad, intercultural marriages, and trying to make a decent pot roast on Thanksgiving.

Grace Buchele Mineta Texan in TokyoMy Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy: The Comic Book” is being funded on the popular crowd-funding website, kickstarter.com, from July 28th to August 30th.

In the first 24 hours online, the book has been funded 73%.

Grace Buchele Mineta is a native Texan, founder of the hit blog “Texan in Tokyo,” and author of the autobiographical comic book, “My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy.” She lives in Tokyo with her husband, Ryosuke, where she blogs and draws comics about their daily life.

I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.

A Heart-warming Korean Video

Via Korean friends, comes this hilarious call between a drunk guy and a woman working the phones for a “replacement-driver” company. He starts swearing at her from the get-go, but she, clearly used to this sort of thing, soon puts him in his place.

Frankly, it gives me a warm glow about living in Korea. The expats among you will surely understand.

Sorry that I won’t provide a translation this time (“You fucking crazy bitch!”, “What, that again? You only know two swear words??”), but if you speak just a little Korean you’ll get the gist, and every native speaker I’ve shown this to has been in tears. To every Korean-language teacher out there, may I humbly suggest incorporating this into your classes somehow, rather than yet another lecture about the joys of making kimchee…