Ladies: Stay Slim with Soju?

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement Mirror

Faced with the unenviable task of somehow making soju cool, Jinro (진로) did a pretty good job with the launching of its new “J” (제이) brand back in October, but its latest efforts to associate the brand with losing weight may well require too big a suspension of disbelief from most consumers!

Or at least, that was my first gut reaction. But then if faced with a choice of two equally priced and similar brands of any strong alcohol, probably I would indeed choose the slightly weaker one: I am slightly overweight, and it’s not like 5 per cent less alcohol wouldn’t still have the desired effect on me. How about you?

As you’ll soon see though, it’s not that which made me first notice the ad:

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Look familiar? To put it mildly, commercials featuring female celebrities lounging around in their underwear aren’t exactly common on Korean television, and so I don’t think the similarities with this advertisement with Han Ji-hye (한지혜) from March – actually, the only other example – are any coincidence. Here, the actress and model featured is Shin Min-a (신민아), as it happens in the entertainment news a great deal as I write this for her first screen kiss with Won bin (원빈), and as you can probably tell, the idea is that a 1 per cent reduction in alcohol content (from 19.5 to 18.5) somehow results in the following:

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement minus 1inch

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement minus 1kg

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement minus 1cm

Admittedly I don’t like high heels in the first place, but that last is probably overdoing it, as I can’t see how drinking less alcohol than normal somehow makes you taller as well as thinner? Regardless, below is a accompanying poster for the new, weaker soju that you may have seen around, and for the sake of adding to my conversation with commentator Seamus about Koreans’ (relative) lack of awareness of the amount of photoshopping in everyday advertisements and magazine images, would be grateful if you could show it to your Korean friends, students, colleagues, and/or lovers and so on: among other things, do they think Min-a’s legs have been lengthened and made thinner in it or not?

Update: Sorry, but in hindsight it was sloppy and quite strange of me to write about this ad without translating the voiceover first, and if I had then what I wrote above would have been quite different:

1kg 빠져도, 다른데?

If you lose 1kg, are you different?

1인치만 줄어도, 좋은데

[Even] if you shorten your skirt by only one inch, it looks better.

1cm만 낮아도, 편한데

[Even] if you reduce the length of your high heels by only 1 cm, they’re more comfortable.

그리고 1도만 더 부드러워져도

처음보다 1도 더 부드럽다

And also if you soften [soju] by only one degree, it’s one degree softer from the first sip.

18.5도 진로제이

진로제이처럼 더 부드러워지세요

18.5% Alcohol Jinro J

Like Jinro, please make your life a little softer.

Shin Min-a Jinro Soju Advertisement

Placing the ad in a wider perspective, as much as 90 per cent of all alcohol consumed in Korea is soju, and Jinro sells 50 per cent of that, so this latest marketing drive may well reflect the saturation of the market more than anything else (no pun intended). In such circumstances, a company can either start selling in new markets or repackage its product in different varieties if it wants to increase profits (or to ensure that they don’t decrease: examples like this are how I learned about the Marxian “inevitable tendency of the rate of profit to fall” at university), a good example of which is the number of different Coca-cola drinks available and their (very very) rough correlation with an economy’s level of capitalistic development and competition, as evidenced by, say, the precisely two available in New Zealand when I entered university in the mid-1990s against the plethora available in the US decades earlier.

And so with equivalents in other Northeast-Asian countries, and little appeal outside of the region, diversification is probably the most logical path for soju producers. True, the above ads in particular reflect a desire to create a new market before reaching that stage – only 30 per cent of soju drinkers are women – but given that…

The word soju to most Korean women produces something approaching a mild panic – an explosive squeal of disgust, a deeply pained expression, head shaking, hand waving. That’s not to say they don’t drink it. It’s just they don’t seem particularly like it, even as they pour it down their throats (source).

…then I have my doubts as to whether that figure will ever go up to 50 per cent. Here’s hoping that the Korean alcohol industry is indeed on the verge of offering more choices and variety then!

Update: Here is a related graphic showing decreases in soju’s alcohol strength over time. For more information (in Korean), see here.

Soju's Strength Decreasing Over Time

(Image Sources: first, second-fourth, fifth, last)


11 thoughts on “Ladies: Stay Slim with Soju?

  1. James, update: Please bear in mind that all the comments up to and including Charles’s below were written before I provided the translation of the voiceover in the ad.

    Sure, the comparison between one kilo and one percent probably isn’t the best one, but I don’t see how this would be advertising that soju makes you lose weight. As I see it, which is probably best represented by the last one about making your heels one centimeter lower, they’re trying to tell us what might seem like an insignificant change does make a difference.

    Of course, the equivalent of losing one centimeter would be far less than dropping the strength of soju with 1%, but still. I think the bear part of this is that it’d simply be easier for women to drink since it’s weaker.


    1. Certainly, and that first point of yours was a fair reading of my first, very sloppy version of the first paragraph (edit: the entire post really!). Sorry about that!

      I’ve edited it to better reflect Jinro’s message that J does not help you to lose weight per se, more that if one is already a soju drinker, then drinking J instead of other brands with more alcohol will help you to lose weight. Or alternately that, if you start drinking J soju, you won’t put on as much weight as you would with other brands. On that basis then, I argue that Jinro is trying to get consumers to “associate the brand with losing weight.”

      I don’t really understand the rest of your comment I’m afraid, but if I’m reading it right then I’d disagree with your point “that they’re trying to tell us what might seem like an insignificant change does make a difference.” There’s no subtlety and downplaying of effects here: quite the opposite, as they’re trying to tell you that however figuratively big you may (or may not) view the 5% difference, it makes a huge difference to your appearance!


  2. Maybe they are. Maybe I’m not able to read it as deeply as you, but I don’t see the definite connection to weight as clearly.


  3. May I add my two cents as to the meaning? When I watched it and to my understanding it’s saying something along the lines of (I’ve embellished a bit):

    Lose 1kg, it’s not anything drastic, but the effect is good, so it’s all good.

    Wear a skirt an inch shorter, not enough to make you look like a slut, but enough to look good, so it’s all good.

    Wear heels that are 1cm shorter, nobody’s really going to notice, but it’s more comfortable, so all is well.

    1 degree (?!) weaker soju is going to have all the same effects, just with you taking on less alcohol, so that’s got to be good to.

    And I have something that I think is interesting to add to that conversation of ours you mentioned. Shortly after that point, I met up with a few female Korean friends and had the same conversation with them. They told me they all were aware of the altering of photos that goes on (thanks for proving me wrong girls), but that it is generally ignored because they know the models are attractive anyway, and that they look good after photoshopping, so that’s all that matters. Basically, despite knowing an image isn’t a true representation, they would rather have the altered image. I just wonder if this means that their ideals of beauty are based on the reality or the unnatural and unattainable?

    This conversation also led into one about cosmetic surgery, and I was told that people do it because it makes them prettier (obvious?), and it’s taken really at face value. I can’t explain this very well, but basically the fact that someone’s pretty face was achieved through surgery has no impact on what they think of that face. If it’s pretty, it’s pretty, whether it could be considered a “natural-looking” face or not.

    I’m not going to make generalisations that all Koreans think like that, or that all non-Koreans don’t. Simply that I don’t think like this. If I know someone has had surgery, I find it very difficult to think that that feature is attractive. And for me, the more invasive or drastic the surgery, the less I can find it attractive. I’m the same with altered photos, they’re about as appealing to me as Lara Croft.


  4. Well, while we’re on the subject of… plugging ourselves when it has nothing to do with this blog, I’ll also take this opportunity to direct anyone who’s interested over to a post I’ve just published on how the aspects of Confucianism that are in the Korean education system have been warped over the course of recent history.

    there’s a bit more to it than that, but I’ll let you find out for yourselves if you’re interested!


  5. Seamus Walsh definitely hit the nail on the head with his first comment. The loss of 1kg doesn’t have a correlation with the actress drinking “J,” it’s just showing that just a little bit makes it fit just right, or look just right, or feel just right. Just one percent less of alcohol in this soju makes it just right. Just so we’re clear though, there’s obviously an attempt to correlate “J” with looking sexier or thinner. But, doesn’t every single alcohol commercial everywhere in the world do that in their own way? It’s advertising.


  6. Actually, Soju does have an overseas market, it’s just that Korea has been too solipsistic to see it.

    In the US several states have laws that differentiate between “soft” and “hard” liquor licenses. In California, at least, Soju is classified as a wine. Soju can also be used to make faux mixed drinks (the “Hangarita” for instance, being the Margarita clone).

    So it is no surprise that Soju is now being sold in California — by Japanese who have either re-labeled shochu as soju, or are buying it from Korea, marking it up, and passing it on to bars there.

    Koreans are their own worst marketers… :-(


    1. Hmmm, lots to get through here. As a warm-up though, as you may have noticed I’ve added a belated translation to the ad, and it certainly appears I misinterpreted the specifics if not the spirit (no pun intended) of the ad. Here goes:

      Charles–Jeez, “solipsistic” wasn’t even in my Collins Cobuild Dictionary, but yes, very apt, and yes, I completely forgot about those wierd laws in California (I’m too tired and busy to chase up a link sorry…hint hint). Still, would I be correct in supposing that shochu, soju, or whatever and related cocktails would still have limited appeal outside of Asian-American communities? I mean seriously, it tastes like crap dude…

      Seamus–Not a bad guess about the ad, and closer than mine!

      As for photoshopping, cosmetic surgery and so on, I’m with you in generally finding women (or men for that matter) more attractive if they choose not to get cosmetic surgery, as accepting and liking your own skin and body and so is 99% of the way to become sexy in my book. Having said that, I’m much more forgiving of it than I was before I started writing this blog, and recognize the big effects it can have on people’s confidence and especially women’s career prospects.

      I’ve seriously spent the last twenty minutes trying to figure out what to make of your Korean friends, but I suppose that at the end of the day if people are aware of the level of alteration – and can recognize when it is excessive especially – then there is no problem really. But they still influence us regardless of our awareness, and at risk of gross generalization, considering that not enough Western youngsters are aware of all the alteration involved, and given Korean’s relative lack of critical thinking skills, then I don’t think all that many Koreans are aware at all really. I wonder how representative your Korean friends are really, as by virtue of being able to be my friends at all, my own Korean friends are definitely not what Koreans and Westerners alike would consider “average Koreans”!

      More to the point though, it’s children and teenagers’ awareness that is the most important, and given things like this, then I seriously doubt that even many of their educators are aware, or care if they are!

      Eric–Yes, Seamus was right. But I disagree that “every single alcohol commercial everywhere in the world” wants people to correlate the product with looking thinner. It’s definitely a new phenomenon in Korea, and of the top of my head the only other product I can think of that does so is the infamous “S-Beer” with added fiber, which will supposedly help our “S-line” (ad image available here, discussion here)


  7. Fair points, I can’t really take this discussion any further, it’s more your field than mine! Quick comment on those Korean friends though, firstly, a couple are certainly not what could be called an ‘average Korean’ – my partner falls into this category, although it’s true that most of them are. However, one thing I must say in their defense on this subject is that only one of them has or ever would have surgery, and that was the eyelid surgery.

    I found your point very interesting about how not being used to and encouraged to think critically about information they’re presented with might make Koreans perceive such photos differently. Like you said, it’s one thing to acknowledge photoshopping, but another entirely to identify the subconscious effect it may have on us.


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