Korean Sociological Image #32: Censorship and Indirect Advertising

(Source: unknown)

Ever find yourself wondering at the logic behind some of the blurring and mosaicing on Korean television?

No, I’m not talking about that recent scene from Chuno involving a fully-clothed Lee Da-hae (이다해) I’m afraid. Rather, the proclivity with which Korean broadcasters will disguise the logos of products visible in television programs. Indeed, it’s so taken for granted here that frankly I’ve had trouble finding examples (without simply watching television and waiting for something to pop up that is).

The reason is to prevent indirect advertising, known as ganjeob gwango (간집 광고) in Korean and PPL (Product Placement, or Embedded Marketing) in the industry. But it is usually ineffective, the blurring in the following segment from the talk-show Giboon Joeunnal (기분좋은날) for instance, or A Day That Feels Good, providing little impediment to this Korean blogger in identifying the brand-name and model of the baby monitor and recommending it to her readers (update: see here for a video that provides a collage of much better examples):

Instead of cases like those though, the majority of articles on the subject discuss deliberate, unedited PPL instead, such as this case with the Bon Bibimbap food chain in the drama City Hall (시티홀), this case with actor Jang Hyuk (장혁) and various Canon cameras in an unidentified drama and film below, and especially a recent episode of the comedy show Paemilli-ga Ddottda (패밀리가 떴다), or Family Outing, in which some Nepa (네파) outdoor clothes were used (see here, here, and here).

Family Outing Nepa(Source)

At the end of that last link, the laws regarding PPL are mentioned, the gist of which is that it should not: influence the content or story of the program; be the focus of viewers’ attentions; be mentioned by anyone in the program; and finally, that the program should not persuade you to buy the product in any way. While all sound reasonable however, they are also very open to interpretation, and Korean broadcasters frequently receive warnings or fines from the Korean Broadcasting Communications Committee for falling afoul of them.

Adding even further confusion to the mix, since 2006 PPL of specifically Korean products has been increasingly encouraged as a means to capitalize on the success of the Korean Wave abroad, one recent example being Kia Motor’s deal to provide cars and other paraphernalia for the hugely popular drama IRIS.

Given that context, then broadcasters’ decisions to ban singer J.ae’s (제이) new album from the airwaves simply because of the lyrics of some songs seems particularly hypocritical:

J.ae’s New Album Rejected by TV Stations

Returning to the music business after three long years must not be as easy as she thought. J.ae’s new special album, “Sentimental,” was ruled unfit for broadcasting by KBS and SBS. MBC is currently reviewing the song to announce the result next week. Broadcasting review panels at the leading national networks said that the lyrics of the title song “No.5” contained direct references to commercial brand names, like Chanel and McDonalds. Network stations are concerned that naming certain brands could cause debates over indirect advertising.

“No. 5” was written by Lee Ji-rin of the indie band Humming Urban Stereo, who was inspired to write a song after seeing an ad about Chanel No.5 perfume on a bus. The song may have succeeded in grabbing the interest of listeners with its unique lyrics, but could not escape from the criticism of indirect advertisement. Jae’s agency said that it’s most unfortunate that her year’s work failed to meet the industry standards, but it will apply for another review after changing some parts of the lyrics. J.ae’s latest album will be out on the market on February 10th. (Source: KBS Global, via Omona They Didn’t)

One wonders what they made of Aqua’s Barbie Girl back in 1997?

J.ae Sentimental .For those of you further interested in J.ae herself, you can read two interviews of her (conducted before the banning) here, and listen to one of the problematic songs No. 5 here (source right: unknown).

Meanwhile, unfortunately this is by no means the first time that artists’ songs have been banned in Korea simply because their lyrics could be construed as PPL, a case involving Epik High (에픽하이) back in April showing that even indirect mention of the artists’ own website can be considered problematic. Moreover, against the argument that both cases are merely inane but innocuous, they do add to the essential arbitrariness of censorship in Korea, English song lyrics acceptable on 1950s American television banned because they could sound vaguely sexual to non native speakers for instance (see #2 here), and accordingly it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to imagine a time when censors will ultimately use PPL as a convenient excuse to ban a disagreeable but otherwise completely legal cultural product.

Or perhaps they already have? If you know of any previous cases of banning based on PPL, then please pass them on, whether the PPL was used as a ruse or otherwise!

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

27 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #32: Censorship and Indirect Advertising

  1. Aha! There must be a similar law in Japan. We’ve often wondered about the blurring of innocuous things. It’s horribly jarring and distracting, but is it worse–in terms of corrupting storytelling and interrupting the viewing experience–than the blatant product placement in US movies and TV? (like the Nokia nonsense in “Alias”…) Hmm. I’d almost rather get used to things being blurred (as I’m sure Korean and Japanese audiences have) than be constantly advertised to.

    Thanks for solving this mystery, anyway. I had been wondering.


    1. Unfortunately I’ve never been in Japan long enough to watch much TV, but I’m not really surprised to hear that Japan has the same laws; probably the Korean law is in fact directly based on the Japanese one (after all, so much else is here).

      I’m in two minds about PPL in movies and dramas and so on though. Like everyone else, I don’t like blatant, in-your-face PPL that ruins your viewing experience, but I also think that that sort of thing is in fact detrimental to the companies involved too, so I fully expect it to become more subtle and less jarring as advertisers become more familiar with it. And I accept a certain amount of it as the inevitable price of being able to download something without traditional commercials too.

      Not that the Japanese and Korean desire to avoid “free” PPL in programs isn’t without merit, but when a camera crew go into a supermarket for instance, then it’s suddenly like we’re watching through a fog, and the usually rather inept blurring of what is quite clearly an ailse full of Coke cans or Cheoum Cheorom soju bottles more patronising to viewers than anything else!


      1. “I’m not really surprised to hear that Japan has the same laws; probably the Korean law is in fact directly based on the Japanese one (after all, so much else is here).”

        Half true, half false.
        It’s true that Korea’s modern law was made based on Japanese law(Japanese modern law was made based on German law) when they made their new country after independence. But the concept of PPL was not even exist back then. Korea has made their law in their own way. I don’t know whether Japan have similar law or not but it has nothing to do with Japanese law even if Japan have similar law.


  2. If anything, it makes me MORE aware of proucts, and let’s face it, most of the time you can figure out what it is by color, shape, etc. Instead of just letting my eye roam over it like every other object on screen, there’s a big freakin’ blog that just screams for my attention and distracts me into detailed anaylsis of what it might be, rather than what’s supposed to be holding my attention.


    1. A “blog” you say?^^

      But yeah, perhaps “it is usually ineffective” wasn’t quite putting it strongly enough. Pity I couldn’t find any better examples to illustrate that though (sigh).


  3. This is hardly new. BBC Television effectively ‘de-branded’ most items some 40+ years ago. And yes, you tended to try and identify what was ‘hidden’.
    However living in a country (New Zealand) where even parts of the television news are sponsored – I long for the advertising free zones of the past.

    have done a lot in teh pat about the psychology of advertising, implementing marketing plans, and even working with wonderful programs that decide how many packets of potato chips you can stuff on a known length of a supermarket shelf..

    Someone, somewhere, wants paying for the joy of being able to advertise their wares …money talks, world wide, and coming to a billboard near you


  4. Any time there is such an opaque and seemingly random censorship it is very open to both abuse along ideological/religious/OMGIhatethatguy lines.

    That scene with Lee Da Hae, I couldn’t believe that they needed to censor it. Talk about innocuous!! Everything was well covered, you can see much more walking down a city street in summer. Another victory for common sense.

    In Australia the main public broadcaster (the ABC, who don’t show ads) are banned from spruiking products, but they don’t resort to blurring things, just not allowing people to blab about how wonderful particular products are, or not showing them blatantly unless it is an integral part of the story. The commercial broadcasters and big newspapers though, often seem to have difficulty with figuring out the difference between paid advertisements and editorial. The good people at Mediawatch http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/ are good at catching them out.


    1. All agreed, although on the plus side the vast majority of Koreans thought the blurring in the scene with Lee Da Hae was ridiculous too.

      I think the Australian system is better, because like Gomushin Girl pointed out, the blurring is not so much ineffective as actively drawing viewers’ attentions to the product and encouraging them to figure out what it is.

      Thanks for drawing my attention to Mediawatch. Unfortunately I don’t have time these days to pay as much attention to the Australasian media as much I’d like, but up until a few months ago I was a regular listener of the weekly New Zealand Radio podcast with the same name which you may also like.


      1. Yep, the forces of hypocritical conservatism are still strong. The men in power have little incentive to change things either. I gather that there isn’t much of a ‘feminist’/gender equality lobby or push? From what you have posted it would have to come nearly exclusively from women themselves, and they would be really pushing against the tide… are the more liberal thinking women leaving the country for other more liberal countries?

        Heh, kiwis are copying us as usual.


  5. I really really hate this law. I work at a radio station playing Kpop (I’m sure that makes me the envy of many 위국인’s out there) and it is constantly a problem. Actually I played this very song on my show a few weeks ago when it first came out cause I new it would be banned soon.

    I really don’t understand how groups like Girls’ Generation and F(x) get away peddling a phone (which they clearly display in the music video and the name of the song is the same as the name of the phone) but groups like Epik High get banned for mentioning their own website.

    Also I’m not sure if you heard about this, but a K.Will song that featured outsider was banned because it contained the word mute. It wasn’t even used in the context of a person who can’t speak either!


    1. I am indeed envious…by the way, did you know that I was unemployed?^^

      Naturally, I hear you about the contradiction between the blatant indirect advertising of Girls’ Generation and so on and the banning of Epik High for such trivial reasons. Another, albeit minor example compared to the ones you mention is the prominently placed bottles of Miero Beauty N (미에로뷰티엔) in their Tell Me Your Wish music video, starting at 0:24 (and which I talk a little bit more about here):

      Don’t *cough* know who K.Will is sorry, could you please tell me a little more?:)


        1. Oh well. Even if it was full-time it would probably be out really, as my very Gyeongsangnam-do wife has quite a disdain for the Jeolla provinces, even though she’s never been there…


          1. Yeah, what’s that whole rivalry about anyway? I got some information that it was because various politicians have done things to screw over one region or the other, but I never got a clear story.


          2. Well, Jeolla was a separate kingdom once (Baekje, 18 BC – 660 AD) but that was a very long time ago and so I’m not sure how big a deal that is really. I don’t know how badly treated or not the region was by the later Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910), but I do know that it was passed over for development by Park Chung-hee in the 1960s and 1970s in favor of the Southeast where he was from, and that’s probably the main factor, fueling and building on historical rivalries.. I’ve heard that as a result, it’s still one of the poorest regions in the country today.

            Wait…you live there(!), do you think so too?

            Still, you’d be amazed at how strong regionalism is in Korea as a whole despite being such a tiny country, and it’s a huge factor in presidential elections.


          3. I think it’s probably true that it’s the poorest province, definitely more so then Busan and Seoul areas. The biggest city, Gwangju, feels a lot more like real Korea to me then other places I’ve been, which is to say that it fulfills my impression that I had of Korea before moving here.

            I actually live in Mokpo now (moving to Gwangju in a week!), but people are very cognoscente of the fact that other regions view them as 촌놈, or hillbillies. I’ve heard stories of people from Jeolla moving to Busan or Seoul and having big problems in school because of their accent.

            In all reality I prefer the quaintness of the Jeolla province (along with the best food in the country!) to the distantness of Seoul. I haven’t been to Busan much, but I do like bikinis and the movie 해운대.


    1. I’ve been vaguely aware of them, and knew that combined they made some sort of story, but wasn’t really interested personally.

      Why do you consider it/them “amazing” though? Not to imply that your opinion is laughable or anything like that of course, am just curious.


      1. I’m really interested in the Korean media in general. The relation to our media is interesting, but I think they way they combine music, advertising, and drama (in the korean sense of the word, meaning scripted television) is very unique.

        This video contains the members of 2PM, a girl from the girl group T-ara, and an ex-pop star turned actress. The product placement, is like that of a standard commercial, but doesn’t really get in the way of the story. The drama itself is actually pretty good, with a classic twist at the end. It was distributed as a 30 second commercial for TV, and the full 13 min(?) version was distributed online. The combination of those things and the fact that these really long commercials are becoming quite common is amazing to me.

        I think the Korean media is ahead of it’s western counterpart in the fact that the media here has made the full jump to the internet. This commercial was made specifically to be consumed primarily on the internet. All of the Kpop groups and stars (all of them, even Hip-hop acts like Epik High and Outsider) release their songs in a very predictable pattern. First a leak about the song, then a day later concept pictures (which can be released daily over the course of as much as a week), then they released the song. The song, of course, is followed by a video teaser, (30 – 40 sec) and the video is released sometime in the next week.

        All of this is done on the internet. It works extremely well, and it is very different from the western model.

        In any case, I could go on about Kpop for a long time. Outside of the fact that the music sucks (in the majority at least, there are a number of great groups out there if you look hard enough.) the industry and the way it interacts with the rest of the media is “amazing” to me.

        Hope I didn’t bore you. :)


        1. Bore me? On no, not at all: advertising forms a big component of this blog after all (I even have a “Creative Korean Advertising” series for ads I particularly like, although for some reason it hasn’t been updated in a while), and you’ve certainly made me look at this particular ad in a new light.

          Still, having said that, I’m not sure that Western media is as quite as behind the times compared to Korea as you suggest, but even if for the sake of argument we’ll assume that it is, like you say Korea’s model is very unique, and I’m not sure if it’s applicable elsewhere. For instance, that there is a timetable at all for the release of songs remains some of the interest, and quite frankly I (and many Koreans) find all the “leaks” somewhat patronizing to our intelligence. Then all the concept pictures, and videos of the taking of the pictures, then the song and a video of the making of the music video and so on…are all a “breaking of the fourth wall” – or to be more precise, the suspension of disbelief aspect of that (see here), which I think most Western celebrities and advertisers would find intolerable. All in all, it just goes to show that entirely too much of Korean advertising is basically “just pretty people holding a bottle”, the internet merely providing and more ways to find out everything one can about said pretty people.

          Don’t get me wrong: I think the Cass Music Drama would indeed be pretty effective, and in that sense at least it was a good idea. But I think it’s more the apotheosis of Korean advertising and internet culture than being anything particularly innovate or creative.


  6. Can anyone cast any light on a semi-related topic; I caught a few minutes of a documentary following a crew of Korean nature photographers travelling to the Philippines. One of the photographers had extensive tattoos which were blurred out completely – I wondered if some of them might have involved strong language or nudity, but all of them were mosiaced… any thoughts?

    (Also, why exactly was that actress’ top blurred out in the historical drama?)


    1. Think you’ve answered your own question about the documentary I’m afraid: certainly I can’t really say anything without knowing more about it sorry. But I can help you with the blurring in the historical drama: see #6 here for more information, with some clarifications added by a commenter here also.


      1. Sorry, perhaps I wasn’t clear – most of the tattoos were clearly simple tribal patterns (although some of them could certainly have been swearwords). Is there some sort of self-imposed broadcast ban on tattoos? The guy was completely covered in them – to an extent which would be very unusal for a westerner, never mind a Korean. As many people have mentioned, though, blurring them out simply makes them more prominent…


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