Gender and The Unwritten Rules of Korean Alcohol Advertisements

Phallic Bokbunja advertisement( Source )

Prompted by my recent post on an advertisement selling soju to women, which I misinterpreted the details if not the spirit of (no pun intended) because I was too lazy to translate the voiceover first, I’ll be using Korean sources as much as possible in my analyses of Korean advertisements  from now on. Unfortunately, judging by its absence in bookstores and its website not being updated, then the only specialist magazine on offline Korean advertising I used to use for that – Korea Ad Times (코리아애드타임즈) – folded back in March, and Korean-language internet sources (on any subject) are notorious for their vacuousness and poor quality writing.

This Maeil Economy (MK) report that I’ve translated below is no exception, and as I pay much more attention to what readers might actually find interesting these days than I did a year ago, when admittedly I used to post just about any tabloid trash I’d translated, then normally I’d reject posting this. But – lest that honesty put you off reading further – I did still learn a couple of things from this one, especially from the last paragraph:

소주광고의 법칙…모델은 만 18세이상의 여자: 포스터 우측 하단에 소주병

The Rules of Soju Advertisements: models have to be over 18, and there has to be a soju bottle in the lower right corner of the poster.

Son Dam-bi Charmsoju Advertisement

( Source )

모델 나이 제한을 비롯해 이래저래 제약이 많은 소주 광고엔 공식이 있다.

Beginning with restrictions on the minimum age of models used, there are many de facto rules to the standard formula used in soju advertisements.

소주 광고의 가장 기본적인 공식은 최고의 인기를 누리고 있는 여자 연예인을 모델로 기용하는 것. 현재 진로 참이슬은 하지원, 진로 제이는 신민아, 롯데주류 처음처럼은 이효리, 보해 잎새주는 백지영과 모델 계약을 맺었다.

The first is that female models that enjoy the highest popularity are hired. Currently, Ha Ji-won models for Chamisul (James: taking over from Son Dam-bi above), Shin Min-a for Jinro, Lee Hyori for Lotte’s “Like the first time,” and Baek Ji-young for Bohae’s yipsejoo.

이는 소주라는 제품 특성상 남성 소비자 비중이 70%를 넘고, 소주를 자주 찾는 남성층이 여성 모델을 선호하기 때문이다. 소주 판매에서 가장 주축이 되는 소비자는 20~30대 남성층. 인기 있는 여성 모델이 소주 광고모델을 하면 이들의 호응을 얻을 수 있다. 이와 함께 깨끗하고 순한 이미지를 강조하고자 하는 업체들의 요구도 강하다. 과거 독한 술로 여겨지던 소주가 최근 알코올 도수를 낮춰서다. 이 같은 이유로 웬만하면 소주 광고는 여성 모델을 기용하고 있다.

As 70 per cent of soju drinkers are men, primarily in their twenties and thirties, then female models are preferred, and popular female entertainers always get the best response from this group. Also, soju companies demand a clean a pure image be emphasized in advertisements. Finally, the alcohol content of  soju is going down. For all these reasons, women are used in soju advertisements.

하지만 최근 저도주 경쟁에 따라 남성을 모델로 기용하는 사례도 찾아볼 수 있다.

Gang Dong-won Soju AdvertisementHowever, as there is increasingly a market for weaker soju drinks, then you can increasingly find male models being used.

20대 여성을 타깃으로 삼은 대선주조의 `봄봄`은 강동원을 모델로 썼다. 봄봄은 알코올 도수가 16.7도로 국내에서 시판 중인 소주 중 가장 낮다. 젊은 여성들을 주된 소비자로 삼다보니 여성들 사이에서 인기가 많은 모델 강동원을 택한 것이다. 대선주조는 대학생 1000여 명을 봄봄 개발에 참여시켰고, 그중에서도 여성들의 입맛에 초점을 맞췄다.

For Daesun’s “Spring Spring” brand of soju, at 16.7 per cent the weakest soju on the domestic market, Gang Dong-won was used to target female consumers in their twenties (source). He was the first choice of 1000 female university students that were used to help develop the brand by participating in a survey on how they found its taste.

소주업계 관계자는 “최근 알코올 도수를 낮춘 소주가 출시되는 것은 여성들을 소주시장에 끌어들이기 위한 것”이라며 “이에 따라 여성만 광고모델로 쓰던 관행도 변하는 추세”라고 설명했다.

An industry insider explained that “recently soju drinks with lower alcohol contents have been released in order to attract female consumers, and accordingly we are changing the convention that only women should be used in soju advertisements.”

소주잔은 반드시 오른손으로 들어야 한다는 것이 두 번째 공식이다. 우리나라에서는 술잔을 왼손에 들고 받는 것은 술을 따라주는 사람에게 실례로 여기기 때문에 모델이 왼손잡이라고 하더라도 반드시 오른손으로 들어야 한다. 또 소주병은 포스터 오른쪽 하단에 똑바로 서 있어야 한다. 이는 주류회사들의 오래된 관행인데, 소주병 자체가 바로 제조회사를 상징하므로 소주병이 기울어져 있으면 사세가 기운다고 여기기 때문이다. 모델이 들고 있지 않은 상태에서 가장 잘 보이면서 광고 전체의 분위기를 깨지 않는 곳이 오른쪽 하단이다.

That soju glasses have to be held in the right hand without fail is another unwritten rule of soju advertisements, as in Korea it is impolite to a person offering the alcohol to receive it in left hand, even if one is left-handed. Also, on soju advertisements the soju bottle itself must be standing, as it is a symbol of the company, and if it is leaning then similarly the fortunes of the company will decline. Finally, if the model is not holding the bottle but it is standing in the bottom-right corner, then it does not detract from the advertisement’s sense of atmosphere.

There are many exceptions to the above rules of course, but now that I’m aware of them, then a quick survey shows that the vast majority of soju advertisements do indeed follow those conventions. Needless to say though, while most advertisements are not as explicit as the opening one for in this “bokboonja” (복분자) here, the use of a bottle as a phallic symbol is by far the most important consideration in virtually any drink advertisement, and it’s difficult to take seriously any analysis of one that doesn’t mention that. Nor one that wouldn’t mention what the shape below is supposed to represent either, which I was interested to learn is called a “yonic” symbol:

Yonic Bokbunja advertisement( Source )

And speaking of women, while I won’t give this subject the attention it deserves here (perhaps next week), also interesting is that I’ve noticed that it is alcohol advertisements targeted towards women that are more likely to break those conventions, which by no means apply only to soju. A good example is this one below (more here) for Jinro’s “maehwasu” (매화수) drink with 14 per cent alcohol, clearly targeted exclusively at women, and one wonders at the logic behind both the flowers and pastel colors and Jinro’s belief that such a vastly different marketing approach was warranted. More often than not these are more indicative of advertisers’ stereotypes and prejudices than any empirical evidence that gendered advertising actually works, at least in the case of broadly similar products marketed to both sexes (cosmetics are possibly one exception though).

maehwasu gendered advertisement( Source )

On a final note, I can’t resist mention of the maehwasu website, for what do you find literally popping up and extending in the bottom left corner of the screen when you visit, to the obvious delight of the three women next to it? It would be interesting to listen to a company representative or advertiser try to explain a non-sexual reason for that particular exception to the rules…

Phallic Maehwasu Screenshot


10 thoughts on “Gender and The Unwritten Rules of Korean Alcohol Advertisements

  1. another great piece…maybe u should point out also that it seems the world over, that when women are used, its always in an explicitly ‘sexual appeal’ manner, whilst when men are used targeting women consumers, its only in a non-sexual way more of a ‘cute looking’ appeal such as the examples u;ve given above…very interesting…


    1. Thanks, but…well, I don’t really think that that needs pointing out, nor have any particular problem with it, as men generally liking female body parts and explicit sexual appeal and so on, and women generally liking more subtle things, like evidence of wealth and so on, is part of the human condition. Not that the former isn’t done to excess in advertising though, and that what are usually very culture and time-specific notions of what is “natural” in any way renders that excess acceptable.


  2. -When is a bottle just a bottle however…?
    On another note, I understand why I get funny looks drinking MaeWhaSul. I never thought it was a women’s drink. Here in Gangwon, seems women are QUITE happy to get drunk on soju. Maybe not the same amount, but they certainly keep up.


  3. Granted, there is always a danger of overanalysis, and if soju bottles are almost always in the bottom right corner of soju ads then advertisers might not spend all that much thought on them when making an ad!

    Having said that, based on what I’ve read, the testimony of people I know who’ve worked in advertising, and just basic common sense, then there is absolutely nothing left to chance in advertisements and commercials, which usually require many many more hours of filming and/or hundreds of photos than what makes the final product. Sorry if that sounds obvious: I’m just saying, a bottle can indeed be just a bottle, but if they’re relevant to the product and can be worked into the ad somehow (no crass pun intended), then long and thin objects will invariably be prominently displayed in advertisements, no matter how supposedly asexual the ad is.

    I’d probably like Maehwasul as well BTW, provided that it is indeed sweet? Got to taste better than paint-stripper soju anyway…


  4. One quick question and one quick observation.

    모델은 만 18세이상의 여자

    You translated the above as “… to be over 18…” So then models must be 19? Or, does “만 18세이상” mean “at least 18” indicating that an 18-year-old model would be acceptable? I’m not trying to bag on you. It’s an honest question.

    Second, the original Korean mentions “…여자” which leads me to believe that these are ‘general practices’ rather than steadfast rules (or even laws) because there are, as you state yourself, male Soju models.


    1. Sorry for the confusion. First, your question:

      “At least 18” would have been more accurate sorry. And 18 “Western age” that is too, just in case anyone is confused by East Asian age systems often add one year to their Western age.

      And yes, that they are “general practices” is better too, but I think that “unwritten rules” is close enough, and both sounds and looks better as a title. The original Korean actually just says “법칙,” or “a law, a rule.”

      I’m not sure if there are laws which state that models of either sex have to be at least 18 to appear in an alcohol advertisement, but I’d be very surprised if they weren’t. I do know that they have to be at least 18 to appear nude at least, although I’ve yet to hear of anyone being prosecuted for breaking that law.


  5. Sorry… didn’t actually see the “unwritten rules” in the title until now… I was focusing more on the “The Rules of Soju Advertisements” directly below the original Korean text.


  6. hi! i discovered your blog while surfing the net. i am an unabashed fan of korean tv dramas(though it has waned a bit) . i want to ask you if alcohol drinking is really a part of korean culture. there is much too much drinking in korean dramas/movies, when they have problems(in their mind insurmountable) they resort to drinking capped by the heroine being carried piggybacked by the leading man . both white collared and blue collared workers seem to resort to drinking when they’re in a happy or sad mood. writers use drinking as deux de machina for things to happen in tv dramas or movies. you don’t see much drinking in u.s. tv dramas, or chinese. i am filipino and women getting drunk is frowned upon here.
    a filipino married to a korean commented that soju drinking in korea is akin to drinking coke . it is so common place that soju bottles are strewn all over public places and beaches.


  7. Getting drunk in public is generally quite socially acceptable, particularly for men. Unlike in the west and many other places, getting absolutely pissed is considered pretty normal. Drinking with the boss and coworkers is a semi-obligatory social activity that can take place several times a week, depending on your company and status within it. Of course there are abstainers, and a whole slew of tricks to avoid obligatory drinking (particularly for women) but there’s a social price to pay for NOT drinking. And as weird as this is to say, the drinking you see in dramas is not really far from reality. While bottles don’t bedeck all the streets and beaches and places all the time, drinking and getting drunk is very much part of Korean social interaction.


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