Korean Sociological Image #8: America…Fuck Yeah!

Korean Advertisement Sungshin Women's University Relative Size Racism Caucasian

An advertisement from today’s Korea Times, which immediately grabbed my attention for 3 reasons:

  • It’s for a women’s university, but not only does it feature men, it has more men than women.
  • It has a Caucasian man in it, whereas the target audience would overwhelmingly be Korean.
  • The Caucasian man is easily the most prominent feature in it, and is looking at the viewer rather than into the distance like the Korean students.

After just a few minutes thought though, obvious reasons emerge for all of those: men are and should be featured because the program is available to both men and women (well technically, the website doesn’t mention anything about the sex of applicants) for instance, and for all their ethnic diversity Caucasians are still an instant and logical signifier of Western countries. And dealing face to face with an American colleague at an American hospital – ie, having a job at one – is precisely the goal of students that will enter this program too, which in turn is well represented by the Koreans in the advertisement looking towards their futures as it were. As the male Korean is wearing a tie, then I’m a bit unsure as to whether the Koreans are supposed to be students in the program or graduates with jobs looking for better opportunities, but other than that slight confusion then the advertisement appears logical as a whole.

Still, despite myself it gives me misgivings.

One minor reason is because the doctor is male. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it seems strange to have a male role-model in an advertisement for a women’s university. Yes, I know I just said that the doctor is supposed to be a future colleague, yet in addition to representing both that and a life in America he does still have a job that students entering into the program would aspire to. If the primary target of the advertisement is women then, not choosing a female doctor seems like a wasted opportunity to kill three birds with one stone.

kim-tae-hee-kang-dong-won-cyon-phone-advertisement-relative-size-eab980ed839ced9dac-eab095eb8f99ec9b90( Source )

But dammit, why’d he have to be so big? As I discuss at great length here, relative size is one of the most powerful tools in advertising, not only making certain features more prominent than others but also – especially when it’s used to contrast two or more people of different sexes, ethnicities, jobs, ages, and so on – both determining and conforming to social norms of ranking, status, and appropriate social roles. For instance, if you take a random man and woman then in 1 in 6 cases the woman will be of equal height or taller, but in advertisements the figure is closer to 1 in 20 or even less. Not that that is evidence of sexism per se though, as women overwhelmingly prefer men that are taller than themselves, and it’s natural that many advertisements would reflect this. Moreover, if you’ve chosen specific celebrities with a significant height difference, say Kang Dong-won (강동원) and Kim Tae-hee (김태희) above, then it would be difficult to engineer a realistic-looking advertisement in which he somehow appears shorter than her.

kim-tae-hee-kang-dong-won-cyon-phone-advertisement-eab491eab3a0-relative-size-eab980ed839ced9dac-eab095eb8f99ec9b90But then consider this advertisement on the right with the exact same couple (source), in which the height difference has been significantly reduced. Sure, it’s not the only reason why the advertisement has a completely different, more egalitarian vibe than the first, but I’d argue that it’s the most important one. And to hammer that point home, consider how simply bizarre everyone would find the above, gangsterish one if Kim Tae-hee were just a little bigger, let alone if a woman taller than Kang Dong-won had been used.

Ergo, size matters, and so while my concern with Sunghin Women’s University’s advertisement may well only stem from the inherent angst of being a socially-aware Caucasian male, guilty at living in a country where being such undeniably confers certain advantages, it still leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable. I would have much preferred one that focused more on the Korean students themselves, and how the program empowered them, but while retaining the signifiers of America, the job, and so on. Not something that basically says:

Oooh, do this course, and you can talk to and work with White people! In America!!! What more could you ever want?

Okay, that specific vocalization may just be me. Or is it? That’s a rather indelicate way to put it above, but it is certainly true that living and working (and being educated) in America conveys a lot of status in Korean society, so far from me implying that any Korean is a passive dupe for responding positively to advertisements like this it is logical and intelligent for them to do so. Moreover, my wife, who is Korean, pointed out that most Koreans wouldn’t think twice about the Caucasian in this ad. Perhaps my concerns are misplaced then.

What do you think? Mere overanalysis and liberal-arts major angst on my part? Or a legitimate concern? Regardless, admit that the doctor is the first person you noticed too though!

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)


19 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #8: America…Fuck Yeah!

  1. They could even reuse the image for a dentistry program.

    “Sungshin brightens your teeth.”

    Maybe I’m looking too far into this, but the Koreans in the back (especially the girl) have bigger smiles than the guy in front, which tends to be backwards in terms of photograph-cultures.

    Also, do you read anything into the directions that they’re facing? My guess is the Koreans are looking up towards their “dreams”, but why is the guy in front facing the camera directly? Is this more authoritative, perhaps giving the viewer more of a feeling like they’re being commanded to apply?


    1. Sorry, but given that the men’s mouths are closed then even I think that using it for a dentistry program is reading too much into it! I agree that the doctor’s smile especially is a little strange looking though, and come to think of it he looks very smooth-faced a la Park Ji-sung in the last ad I looked at.

      No offense, but I already mentioned in the post what I think is implied by the different directions they’re all facing. I agree with you (and didn’t mention) that the doctor looks more authoritative by facing the camera though.


  2. The image seems truly strange considering the audience. I wonder if they thought the American male would reinforce that the women would be working with American doctors (who obviously are all white…hahahaha). Who knows. It seems like a bad ad campaign.


  3. Let’s not forget that men are doctors, too, and that you can reach a tipping point with overcompensating. Not necessarily here, I’m just saying. In this ad I think this trio would be fine if they were (a) resized, and (b) shown dong stuff in an actual medical setting.

    Maybe I’m just cranky today, or have grown oversensitive, but I get sick of white people and foreigners inserted everywhere. But probably not until you have a generation of “foreign” Koreans, or until these biracial Koreans grow up and become academics will you have anyone look into the objectification seriously.


  4. Hm, the doctor’s not looking at me, he’s looking past me into the distance. he has a more benevolent teacher atmosphere, from how I look at him.


    1. Brian, papa2hapa–Agreed.

      Catherine–Where he’s looking at is a little ambiguous, yes. I don’t get an aura of a benevolent teacher myself though, more an almost sculpted Aryan, but we can agree to disagree on that.


  5. I just wanted to point out (as an American) that going to med school in Antigua is not the dream of every American college student. You go there if you aren’t good enough (aka – haven’t been accepted) to make a ‘real’ American med school.


  6. Ugh, the most annoying thing about this is how they’re trying to imply that the school is in the US when it’s in the Caribbean somewhere. Notice how the advertising copy actually says that you can “practice medicine in the USA” and that it’s called “American University of Antigua,” but never says that it’s located in the USA–because it’s not. It may be a decent school, but it’s sure selling itself in a misleading way.


    1. Bob, Wintersweet–Thanks for pointing those out: not paying more attention to the name of the college was a little sloppy of me. Hell, as a Brit/Kiwi/Aussie taking advantage of Commonwealth countries’ special relationships with each other, even I knew that Antigua was a former British colony in the Caribbean. But the ad certainly misled me!


  7. Misled me too, but even more than that, this is for a course at a Korean University. It says it’s in partnership with this American UNiversity of Antigua, but what does THAT mean? Moreover, it’s a pre-med course, meaning you do not receive an M.D. at the end of it, and after completing it, one would not be qualified to practice medicine in the US, you’d have to do that afterwards. This advert is really very cunningly worded, it says it’s an “opportunity” to acquire an M.D. in the future. I’m not sure if this is clever or poor advertising, but I do think it’s very sly with its wording!


  8. It says that this is a program for university graduates. I thought that Korea, like Japan (and most non-US countries?), trains its doctors within the confines of an undergraduate specialization. Is medical training in grad school usual in Korea?


  9. Hi Im a big fan of your site and really want thank you for your accurate and exhaustive work

    I started a Korean Tech Blog,web2.0 etc. almost 2 years ago republishing post from other site most of time, day after day i tried to understand some sological aspect of a Normal korean citizen so now im moving on other topics and i would like discover and share with others why web presence is so strong in everyday life why boys prefer play video games and not go out with girls why mobile phone is best girls friend and so on .

    I really would like to know your point of view on this, and find a future way of collaboration.

    Thank you Vaiguoren.


  10. Proportion indeed. The poor woman in the middle was given an ostrich neck to align her head with the giant and the other guy.


  11. Hahaha, now that you mention it, Whatsonthemenu…

    You can see the photo editing in the center where there’s a groove. Either that or she’s got an Adam’s Apple in the works.


    1. Last reply before bed (be warned!):

      Sarah–Sorry, I don’t know.

      Whatsonthemenu–Trust you to spot that (and me to miss it). And yes, she’s a veritable giraffe…

      Vaiguoren–Sorry, but I didn’t really understand your comment. Please elaborate more in an email to me? Regardless, I’ll be interested in reading anything you write on those topics, but in advance I should say that I’m so busy with this blog, my kids, work, and trying to start a writing career and so on that I really have little…well, absolutely no time for collaborating with other bloggers I’m afraid. Sorry!


  12. I am wondering why the Sunshin Univ. ad is in English.
    The phone number listed is clearly for domestic calls and thus I figure this ad is not targeting international audience.

    This is very disturbing actually.


  13. I noticed that lots of commercials/ads in the subways in Seoul features Caucasian men and women instead of Korean… like, how often does non-representative nationalities show up in other, western countries’ commercials?


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