Korean Sociological Image #30: Exploiting Koreans’ Body Insecurities

Like everywhere else, Korea has a long tradition of celebrities endorsing government campaigns.

Unlike everywhere else, a “huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people,” says Bruce Haines, head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide, a tendency which in its crudest form degenerates Korean advertising into merely “beautiful people holding a bottle.” In turn, that leads to a scramble for and subsequent overexposure of whichever Korean stars are most popular at that moment, regardless of their inappropriateness for the product(s).

Government campaigns are no different, to my mind the most notorious case still being the National Election Commission’s (중앙선거관리위원회) choice of The Wondergirls (원더걸스) to encourage people to vote in local elections in April 2008. Needless to say, I can’t think of anyone more inappropriate than teenagers (two of whom were only 15), and their choice of outfits simply beggars belief:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

But again, no different to what they wore in commercials at the time. Which is precisely my point: regardless of their merits, major trends in advertising are bound to be reflected in government campaigns sooner or later.

And as long term readers of this blog will be well aware, one trend is encouraging consumers to associate certain foods and drinks with certain desired body shapes. While it is hardly unique to Korea, it is done to excess here.

Is it any wonder then, that with the decline of the domestic rice industy, and concerns food security as a whole, that the government would do the same when promoting the consumption of domestic foods and drinks?

Last year for instance, I gave the example of how the Korean rice wine Makgeolli (막걸리) was being marketed to women on the basis that it is supposedly good for one’s skin. Now, I’ve found two more examples by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (농림수산식품부; MIFAFF), using the new group 4Minute (포미닛) and the Olympic medalist Park Tae-hwan (박태환) respectively:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To be clear, I am not saying that either are inappropriate choices. Actually I think they’re rather good: both are very popular, and it turns out that 4minutes’ egg song is a variation of their recent hit “Hot issue” too. I also fully concede that the connections between consumption of the product and obtaining an attractive body are fleeting (4minute) or merely implied (Park Tae-hwan) at best.

But still, they’re there. And given the long-term problems with Korean agriculture as identified above, then I hereby predict that we’re going to be seeing many more public campaigns like these in 2010. In particular, the links made between the products being advertised and obtaining an “S-line” and so on are going to be made more explicit.

Sound like an exaggeration? Well, recall how quickly commercial incentives have transformed decades-old standards for soju advertisements: just three years ago, they overwhelmingly offered virginal images of women, whereas now it’s rather difficult to find ones that don’t present them as eminently sexually available. Moreover, in an effort to appeal more to women, soju companies too are encouraging them to associate new lower-strength brands with maintaining a good body, however implausibly.

But perhaps an even more appropriate example is soy milk. If you’ll bear with me, being allergic to milk means that I follow developments in the soy milk industry here pretty closely, and Starbucks Korea’s belated decision to add soy to its menu in 2005 had a huge impact on my quality of life here! Not unlike the drinks themselves though (anybody know where I can find these flavored ones?) – or, indeed, government campaigns – soy milk commercials tend to be rather bland, so I certainly sat up and took notice when I first saw this one a few days ago:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Soy milk companies too then, seem to be adopting the tactics of their more popular counterparts now. Lest I appear overly critical though, consider the scene 0:03 from 0:06 where 17 year-old Kim Hyun-ah’s says “[S]라인을 유지하려면 어쩔 수 없어,” or “If you want to maintain your S-line, you have no choice but to [drink] this.” Despite my constant criticisms of that sort of thing, and my earnest desire that my daughters don’t grow up to repeat it, I have to admit that I can’t help but find her expression and tone of voice, well, extremely cute…

Yes, I know: very hypocritical of me, and I await your counsel. But on a final, more serious note, consider Garaetteok Day (가래떡데이), MIFAFF’s scheme since 2006 to get people to eat stick-shaped rice cakes instead of Pepero chocolate sticks on November 11 each year. Promoted mostly as a romantic event for couples, as are most imported and/or artificially created holidays (Christmas Day, for instance, is the date the most condoms are sold in Korea), is it really too much of a jump to imagine that concerns about one’s appearances will be added to that too? Watch this space!

Update: An alternative way of exploiting Koreans’ associations with November 11 (source):

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)


14 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #30: Exploiting Koreans’ Body Insecurities

  1. Hmm, those government ads, oh dear. If they ran similar tax payer funded ads here the government would be laughed at.

    I don’t pay much attention to ads here, but they always like to imply or associate themselves with health, luxury, sophistication or whatever. Here there are laws and regulations about what you can claim, however, and they’re likely to get pinged if they go too far. Are there similar regulations in SK? If so then I would have thought that they would prevent the most egregious examples at least.


    1. Oh well. But variety is the spice of life and all, and neither of MIFAFF’s ads would stand out by the standards of Korean advertising. Not to say that I feel strongly about them either way though.

      I can’t help you much with specific Korean laws and regulations regarding false advertising sorry, but I do know that a legal loophole means that those claims made of diet and/or health supplements don’t face quite the same scrutiny that those for foods and medicines do. If you’re interested, I discuss that more at the beginning of this post.


      1. That voting ad is just ridiculous, like getting a vegan to endorse a steak restaurant! I guess that, at a minimum, there are at least pretty underaged girls to ogle, as opposed to the bland advertising we normally get here.

        Check out this ad (with extra embedded comments) the last federal government wheeled out shortly before the election they lost (badly), in order to convince people they actually cared about global warming. It was, as you can guess, widely ridiculed.


        1. Hahahahaha…that reminds me of how local laws prevent my father IN THE DESERT in Western Australia from using his washing line to dry his clothes, a natural corollary of which is how every new house in his region has to include a space for a dryer.

          Any improvements in that regard with Kevin Rudd coming to power?

          As for the Wondergirls ad…yeah, come to think of it, with narrator models being de rigueur for the opening of every new store, and women in supermarkets in faux uniforms promoting everyday household items and so on, then I doubt anyone thought twice about using them unfortunately.


          1. What, a law against hanging clothes outside to dry naturally? Err, I’d love to hear what their reasons were for that. Perhaps it was disturbing the kangaroos?

            Hmm, well, I’d say that there has been an overall improvement, if not as much as I (and many others) might like. At least he wants to do something about global warming and pollution, if not as much as he might. The trusty opposition is busy opposing everything in sight, and the Opposition leader has said that climate change is “crap”, and he was installed after the last leader said he wouldn’t lead a party which would “do nothing” about climate change. He won by a single vote, and 1 MP was even absent, such a farce and such a rabble, with about 3 votes for party leader in a week.

            Another funny 07 election vid, though you may not recognise all the references.

            I wonder what a psychologist would say about what SK’s ads say about it, or the ads of any country for that matter. From what little I can gather (mostly from here) it seems like the standards of ads over there are going backwards… fast.


  2. When I visited Korea after high school around five years ago, I loved watching Korean commercials since they always had the hottest celebrities hawking the coolest goods, and not in the cheesy Luke Wilson in AT&T ads way. The slick graphics and vaseline on the lens made them look impossibly perfect, and it was fun to watch. I even have a video of me shushing my brother so I could finish watching a Won-bin commercial. Oh youth, why do you make everyone so silly.

    Now that I’m a little order, I can really see why my cousins or any young girls I met in Korea were so conscious of their body image. It really is brainwashing for adolescents because pop culture inherently relates to them. Commercials almost act as an promotional arm, and ads can have music video type quality or be cinematic. That’s what draws us in. So it really isn’t about the product – it’s about the star who so happens to be holding a glass of soju or green tea or whatever else.

    Combined with the level of fandom and idolization of today’s pop stars, I feel like these ads a have a lot of say on defining beauty. The S lines, V lines, long legs, white skin, small tummies, big eyes, and long shiny black hair, all being represented by the Korea’s most beautiful. I know American society emphasizes beauty as well, but there isn’t an established archetypal beauty, and I don’t think it’s as readily commercialized. We sell sex, but it’s not the same kind of sex appeal hitting us over the head again and again. This is just another thing that makes me glad I wasn’t raised in the motherland.


    1. I hear you, and in case you didn’t know already, you may be interested to learn that Korean advertising’s excessive fixation with celebrities is what’s to blame for all the “making of CFs (commercial films)” too. For years I struggled to understand it, seeing as how the dull reality of photoshoots and so on completely removed all the fantasy elements and/or sexiness I’d originally associated with the ad, but then Bruce Haines’ words made me realize that the person involved was actually much more important. This has been confirmed for me by a couple of Korean friends in recent weeks too.

      Seeing as how important celebrities are then, it adds a certain poignancy to these words of Javabeans’ about the body images they’re deliberately projecting to people, even when they’re not getting paid for it (see comment #21).


  3. It would be interesting to get more perspectives from Koreans on the issues raised on your blog. Insiders and outsiders may view the same thing very differently. I was reminded of this as I watched a Youtube video of American Idol, featuring the song “Pants on the Ground,” sung by a 60-year-old African-American man. The middle-aged Black woman and young Black man on the panel with Simon Cowell were roaring with laughter while Simon was saying “enough, enough” with an annoyed face. I wondered if Simon got the cultural reference.


    1. Definitely, and I am making more effort to incorporate Korean sources into what I write these days, but do you mean on this post specifically or on the blog as a whole? If the former, then I did look on Naver but found little except glorified press releases about MIFAFF’s ads unfortunately. I did (and usually do) ask my students about them though, but they didn’t really have any opinion on these specifically other than to find 4Minute’s egg one amusing (and *cough* tellng me the name of the song they were mimicing).

      One thing I did learn from the students that you especially might be interested to hear about though, and which I mean to get around to adding to the relevant post, is the ad for the seat that supposedly gives you apple hips. I criticized it for having a man in it holding the sign saying “Women! Apologize to your bottoms!, but my students said that it was meant as a funny pun based on “사과” meaning both apologize and apple, and that I was completely barking up the wrong tree in thinking otherwise.

      Related, as I type this I’m going over Korean sources on Ivy and Baek Ji-young’s sex video scandals from 2007 and 2000 respectively, as a Korean friend made me realize that the former at least was not quite the black and white innocent-woman-harassed-by-sexist-and-hypocritical-netizens case I’ve thought for many years. I’ll get back to you!


        1. Well, I have repeatedly lamented here that I’ve been looking for years, but can never seem to find anything in Korean: even typing all possible variations of “sexist advertisement” or “sexism” + “advertising” I can think of into Korean search engines, for instance, throws up virtually nothing.

          I’ll certainly keep trying, and as you know I do stumble across Korean sources on some issues now and then (and I’ve also discussed virtually every related journal article and book on related issues by Koreans that I can find, albeit only those in English). But like I mentioned in this post, I see the fact that I have any difficulty at all as evidence of how accepted and unquestioned things like sexism in advertising are here. If they weren’t, then more people would be talking about them…


          1. I was thinking of commenters more than published sources. Korean commenters do appear from time to time, but your blog, like most K-blogs, doesn’t seem to attract regular comments from Koreans living in Korea. I don’t consider a Korean living overseas as respresentative because living in a foreign country for awhile changes your thinking, especially towards your own country and its culture.


          2. Ah. Yes, I’d like many more comments from Koreans in Korea too. Unfortunately the English level is simply too onerous for most, and while I do often ask my students for their opinions on many of these issues, the reality is that most such occasions devolve into me lecturing them about them instead, as they’re not quite as into sociology as I am. Not that I’m averse to that of course, but unfortunately it’s not what they came to class for.

            Other than writing in Korean, I think the only way to get more Koreans commenting here is to engage with similar-minded Koreans myself first, either in Korean or English. Here’s one possibility I’ve identified at least, so I really should put my A into G and say hi there sometime, like I *cough* said I would!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s