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!

Why the Japanese Don’t Illegally Download Music. Much.

Bodacious Space Pirates(Source)

For all their passion, home-grown fans are not paying enough for K-Pop.

The CD industry is stagnant, and digital music sites are seen as vastly underpriced, with some charging just a few cents a song.

Bernie Cho, head of music distribution label DFSB Kollective, says online music sellers have dropped their prices too low in a bid to compete with pirated music sites….

….With downward pressure on music prices at home, “Many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea.”

(BBC, June 2011)

With many implications for the Korean music industry, and raising many questions about the curious preferential treatment given Korean fans over international ones, I’ve been quoting Bernie ever since. So too Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton and Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore on movies, the latter of whom suggested that cultural differences are the main reason that Koreans illegally download so much more of them than the Japanese:

…governments around the world are subsidizing and promoting the ubiquity of high speed broadband to make their economies more efficient and competitive. With this increase in speed, content will travel that much more easily on the Internet. But without restraints, much of that content will be contraband.

I’ve already seen it happen in South Korea, which has one of the most highly developed broadband networks in the world. But piracy has also become so highly developed there that we and virtually every other studio has recently had to curtail or close down our home entertainment businesses. It’s hard to sell a legal DVD when it can be stolen without any repercussions.

(Michael Lynton, The Telegraph, May 2009; source, below)

Iron Man 2 Japanese Poster…Paramount is holding back the release of “Iron Man 2″ in Japan for several weeks, having little fear about the country being swamped with bootleg copies of the film.

However, when it comes to Korea, it’s a different story. “For better or worse, there are certain countries — notably like Korea — where it’s culturally acceptable to download movies online pretty much right away,” said Moore. “By the third week of a movie’s release, you’re starting to see a large part of the audience who will start consuming the film online. It’s why Korea has almost no home video business anymore.”

(Rob Moore, Los Angeles Times, May 2010; via The Marmot’s Hole)

Given Lynton and Moore’s frustrations, readers — and myself — can be forgiven for accepting that culture must have something to do with it, and that this would necessarily apply to music too. However, I’ve just finished reading Ian Condry’s brilliant Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (2006), a must-read for all Japanese and — yes — Korean music fans (I’ll explain in a review later this month), who adds two crucial economic and technological reasons that few outsiders to Japan would be aware of:

Ian Condry Hip-Hop Japan(Source)

Two other aspects that distinguish Japan’s music market are rental CD shops and low rates of online piracy. These characteristics further demonstrate that abstract markets do not operate separately from their concrete settings. In Japan, recorded music sale rose steadily during the postwar period, peaked in 1998, and then began a sharp decline that continued through 2004. The start of the decline coincided with the emergence of Napster in 1999, but there are reason to think that online piracy offers only a partial explanation for the decline in sales. As I discuss elsewhere, online piracy is less prevalent in Japan than in the United States. In Japan, most young people access the Internet using cell phones, which as yet tend to have neither broadband connections not substantial hard drives. In addition, ubiquitous CD rental shops make it relatively easy and inexpensive to sample new music without relying on unauthorized downloads. CD prices are high in Japan, generally between ¥2,500 and ¥3000 (US $23-27), but renting a CD is very cheap, generally around ¥300 ($3). The widening availability of CD burners contributes to this “sneaker net” for passing around music and also limits the attractiveness of online file sharing. This suggests that the lack of online piracy arises less from a national respect for copyright than from the combination of a business setting in which rental shops make it easy for consumers to sample music cheaply and a technology environment dominated by Internet-ready cell phones that make downloading over peer-to-peer networks unfeasible.

(pages 190-191; my emphasis)

Written well before smartphones had made their debut, clearly that description is a little dated. Indeed, by 2012, the Recording Industry Association of Japan estimated that only 1 in 10 music downloads were legally purchased, prompting the Japanese government to introduce harsh fines and jail times* for — uniquely — the illegal downloading (rather than the more usual uploading) of content, which in turn provoked an attack on government websites by Anonymous.

However, the Japanese are notorious for stubbornly sticking to outdated technology. Common-sense dictates that looking only at digital downloads would give a very skewed impression of the Japanese music market, which is still the second biggest in the world.

Japan Smartphone(Source)

For just last week, Japan Realtime reported that CD sales are booming:

“The Japanese market is very different from the rest of the world,” said Mr. Minewaki [CEO of Tower Records Japan]…

….While global sales of physical CDs have been plunging under pressure from the digital download market, Japanese CD sales bucked this trend in 2012 with a 9% rise from a year earlier, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Tower Records Japan is majority-owned by Japan’s largest wireless carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc.

Mr. Minewaki said CDs continue to do well in Japan because of legal constraints that curbs rapid discounting, a lag in consumers switching from feature phones to smartphones, and the popularity of rental CD shops where consumers can rent then copy music, a cheaper alternative than buying songs or albums online.

But the compact disc business isn’t completely immune to the marching popularity of digital downloads…

Meanwhile, here in Korea, I don’t think I’ve even touched a CD in the last year. Although I do have hundreds, being 37 years old and all…

How about yourself? Are CD rental stores also still around in Japan?

*Like most articles praising the rapid rise of the Korean digital music market and the supposed success of Korean anti-piracy efforts, this article completely fails to mention how absurdly cheap Korean digital tracks are, as noted by Bernie Cho in the opening quote.

Permanent Revolution by World Order: Japanese Robot Salarymen for Peace!

(Source)

With island disputes between China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan so dominating the news recently, it’s nice to see something that puts a positive, optimistic spin on those relationships. Let alone one that does so by having Japanese salarymen strutting like robots around the streets of Tokyo and Seoul:

The group is World Order, a Japanese band formed by Genki Sudo, who also directed and produced the video (with choreography by Ryo Noguchi). Just the latest in a series of similar videos performed all around the world, Tofugu, a Japanese pop-culture site, describes them as “the most innovative dance and music troupe in Japan,” and adds that their appeal is not just their dancing, but also:

…the people watching them dance. They just go out in public areas for the most part, do their thing, and then leave. People walk by, look at them all confused, take video/pictures, ignore them completely, and all kinds of other hilarious things if you pay close enough attention. Try to watch and you’ll see some entertaining reactions.

See Tofugo for many examples. Meanwhile, the very cool cartoonist Jen Lee (of Dear Korea fame), whom I’m very grateful to for finding the video, has managed to find a rare translation of the lyrics too:

(Source)

A blue shine on my fingertips

As I touch the side of your pensive face

When I look up to the gray sky

A blue sky spreads out over the east sky

Keep changing

Permanent Revolution

Without stopping

Keep walking

Permanent Revolution

To a single world

Gather the accumulated lies

Keep erasing them among the pluses, without making a sound

Keep believing

Permanent Revolution

Without wavering

Keep loving

Permanent Revolution

Open your heart

Keep changing

Permanent Revolution

Without stopping

Keep walking

To a single world

The Future of Manufactured Idols: Update

(Source)

I like to think that if I’d seen AKB48’s newest member Aimi Eguchi (江口 愛実) when she debuted, that I’d immediately have been able to tell that she was actually computer-generated. But I’m not so sure: whereas it’s pretty obvious in most of the shots here and here, I would never have noticed anything unusual about that ad above (all the members look quite fake!), nor that this and this picture weren’t of a real person.

It’s a little more obvious in the commercial itself though:

Thanks very much to @Septemberlena for letting me know about her. Unlike Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) that I wrote about two weeks ago, who very much resembles an anime character despite the impressive technology behind her, unfortunately such photorealistic idols clearly have a huge potential to insidiously affect teens’ body images. Especially when coming from a group as popular as ABK48.

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Hatsune Miku: The Future of Manufactured Idols?

(Source)

What’s the first thing that goes through your mind, when you hear that over 3000 people at a time are attending concerts performed by a hologram?

If you’re a fellow science-fiction fan, then possibly this scene from chapter sixty-nine of Snow Crash (1992), Neal Stephenson’s cyperpunk classic (and where we get the word “avatar” from):

…[the light show] begins to simplify itself and narrow into a single bright column of light. By this point, it is the music that is carrying the show: a pounding bass beat and a deep threatening ostinato that tells everyone to keep watching, the best is yet to come. And everyone does watch. Religiously.

The column of light begins to flow up and down and resolve itself into a human form. Actually, it is four human forms, female nudes standing shoulder to shoulder, facing outward, like caryatids. Each of them is carrying a something long and slender in her hands: a pair of tubes.

A third of a million hackers stare at the women, towering above the stage, as they raise their arms above their heads and unroll the four scrolls, turning each one them into a flat television screen the size of a football field…

The reality however, is rather different. But Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) is no less impressive for all that:

Or rather, the technology behind “her” is. As the notes to that video put it:

Japan’s newest singing sensation is a… Hologram. No, that’s not a typo! It’s amazing where technology is headed these days! Over in Japan Cryton Future Media is actually starting projector concerts using a actual live band to compliment their virtual vocaloid idols like Hatsune Miku. Regardless of being a Hatsune Miku fan or not, just seeing what technology can accomplish is just amazing. While this technically isn’t a ‘true’ hologram (one where light actually takes up volumetric space rather than just a planar surface) like the one we’ve all seen of in Star Wars, it is still nevertheless quite impressive how real this appears!

Still, as author of this blog(!), it behooves me to ponder some of the negative social consequences as the technology improves, especially once the virtual idols become photo-realistic. Indeed, Hatsune Miku aside, it’s already entirely possible that when my daughters are in their late-teens or early-twenties, they’ll feel compelled to compare their bodies with – and be compared to – impossibly perfect computer-generated body shapes. But if those happen belong to the hottest (virtual) girl-groups in K-pop too?

But wait a minute…women being encouraged to aspire to body-shapes that it’s physically impossible for human females to achieve? Hell, that’s already happening!

Update 1 - Edurne mentions that the movie S1m0ne explored these themes way back in 2002:

Update 2 – As it turns out, a photo-realistic member of a (Japanese) girl-group was actually created back in June!

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