Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context: The Mile High Club

( Source )

Quick question: for want of a better word, what vibe do you get from the above image? How does it make you feel?

Part of this Korean Air advertisement, how about with the caption:

From departure to arrival, only dignified services for our dignified guests.

Or with the fine print:

When you land, you should be in the same delicate condition as you were during take-off. That’s why our delicate service with a smile remains constant throughout the flight until you reach your destination.

In particular, do you find it demeaning to the steward in any way, or women in general?

Does the fact that only 11% of Korean Air stewards are men influence you in any way, Korean Air only hiring men from within its own ground staff since 1997, but women also from the general public?

And finally, do you get the same vibe from this Gucci advertisement? Why or why not?

( Source: the Fashion Spot {NSFW})

Alas, I have no information about the Gucci advertisement unfortunately (I would be grateful if any readers could enlighten me), but the Korean Air advertisement at least ran in magazines and newspapers worldwide in March 2008, and I recall finding it vaguely disturbing when I saw it in the Asian edition of The Economist at the time, but not quite being able to put my finger on why exactly.

And as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one, commentators from Singapore to London either baffled by it, finding it “hilarious that Korean Air published it in a Western magazine,” thinking it demeaning to women, and/or hoping that in Korea itself “it’s some kind of image of empowerment.” But I didn’t personally see anything sexual in it however, and so – forgive my naivety – originally didn’t quite get this unspecified newspaper author who commented that they were “glad that she is wearing a scarf, which is part of her uniform, and not something else.” Moreover, I certainly didn’t think it looked like she was about to perform fellatio either, unlike the author of Copyranter:

KOREAN AIR: How May We Service You?

Korean Air: You think our turbines have suction power…

The ad copy (click image) reads, in part: “That’s why our delicate service (no teeth!) with a smile remains constant throughout the flight…” Now, the ad was scanned from the March 31st Asian edition of Newsweek. And as tipster Juditha wrote, there certainly is a cultural difference with how female flight attendants (and really, all females) are perceived in Asian culture. But. Still. If the airline keeps running ads in this vein (sorry!), their male passengers are not going to stop at unbuckling just their seat belts.

But hey, we all make mistakes, and it’s not like there weren’t some distinctly sexual overtones to the advertising campaign as a whole; with thanks to fellow blogger Logan Row for pointing it out, note the symbolism at 0:19 in the commercial below for instance (and quite a common theme in wine advertisements!):

What is the logic of the Korean Air advertisement then? Well, as commentators in those above links pointed out, what Korean Air is trying to say in it is:

…that their attendants will go the extra mile for their guests. The pose that the flight attendant is striking is how traditional Korean hostesses would serve guests in their own homes. It is a traditional Korean (and to an extent Japanese) form of humility and hospitality

And that it’s a reference to the:

…Korean (and Asian) custom of bowing in front of your elders, parents, to people you respect, or in general to show deference to someone and submission. (ie students serve their teachers drinks/food on their knees) Its a position of servitude not necessarily the same ‘on your knees’ sexual connotation we have in the US. Obviously all of this still is problematic as far as the the female subjugation at the will of the Korean Air clients and basically almost just as offensive. But I thought that cultural reference was probably really important as well, as Korean, and other Asian cultures would read it with that in mind.

And finally that:

it conjures up being treated like royalty – in the old days the servants of royalty had to kneel and bow at all times when presenting the king with food/drinks/documents and then scoot out the door, never showing their backs. it is a sign of respect. with that said, this should not run anywhere outside East Asia as it can be misconstrued by everyone else.

( Source: the Fashion Spot {NSFW})

However, unfortunately it was. And unlike in Korea where cultural factors mean that the advertisement is not necessarily demeaning to women, a person’s social status usually trumping factors like how (literally) highly they are placed in an advertisement (see here, here, and here), having any group regularly placed lower than another in advertisements tends to be problematic in Western culture, for reasons the late sociologist Erving Goffman outlined in Gender Advertisements (1979):

Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)

And also:

Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)

Granted, the Gucci and Calvin Klein examples of this above are particularly provocative, but you can see more normal ones in this “Ritualization of Subordination” category of Goffman’s framework at The Gender Ads Project if you’re interested. Moreover, in light of those, I’m no longer entirely convinced that the Korean Air advertisement isn’t still problematic despite its cultural context: after all, with the proviso that men usually look rather awkward in poses that are sexually appealing on women (as hilariously demonstrated here), I personally find it very difficult to imagine a man in place of a woman in the Korean Air advertisement, although I fully concede that that may be due to my own socialization process leading me to believe that it is more “natural” with a woman, or even simply my familiarity with the advertisement, that happened to feature a woman rather than a man. Or is it not just me?

( Source: WallyWorld )

Regardless, this is by no means the first time that Korean advertisers or advertising agencies have produced advertisements that are appropriate for and/or logical to Koreans, but completely confusing and even offensive overseas. Not that only Korean companies are guilty of doing so of course, but they are the focus here, so let me leave you with 2 examples, the most notorious of which is probably Korean cosmetic maker Coreana’s (코리아나) use of Nazi imagery in 2008, about which you can read more at Brian in Jeollanam-do here, here, and then here (and the video is still available at Adland.TV).

Next, slightly more benign, there is that for the Samsung Sens notebook computer from September last year:

The logic of those with other, non-Sens notebooks having pig noses is that Korean 2-plug electrical sockets do indeed look a little similar, and I’ve heard that that’s traditionally what they were called too (but perhaps only by children?).  Regardless however, one wonders why they act like bafoons, and particularly why they’re all Caucasian when the commercial was filmed in a city as racially diverse as Sydney?

But a crucial difference between those and the Korean Air advertisement was that only the latter was intended for a global audience, and so the advertiser or advertising agency responsible should really should have known better. And now I’m curious: can anyone think of other cases where Korean advertisers or advertising agencies have made similar mistakes overseas? Alas, given the insular nature of the Korean advertising industry, probably not!

Update: Compare this advertisement for ANA airlines’ flights to Japan, from the February 2010 Hemisphere magazine (the in-flight United Airlines mag).

(For more posts in the “Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context” series, see here, here, here, here, and here)


17 thoughts on “Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context: The Mile High Club

  1. Hi. I think the solution is simple: if you place an international ad, have an international agency do it for you. Not a Korean one. If you want to advertise in Korea, use a Korean agency.

    So simple.



  2. I find that advert completely weird, but I don’t know why. There’s something about the woman, the position, her expression, the colours… I don’t know, I’ll be back here I’m sure once I’ve seen what other people have to say. But yeah, to me, it looks weird.


  3. It’s tricky talking about flight attendants. You’re right that the Korean Air people should have probably known some in the global audience might find the ad demeaning to women. I personally don’t think it is, especially viewed from the Korean context (that is, “what Korean Air is trying to say” as those commenters pont out). It’s also important to consider that in spite of all the negative attention Korean airlines get from the west for hiring almost exclusively young, attractive women, and focusing so heavily on service, they rank among the top in the world. On the flipside, western airlines, staffed by . . . um, “equal opportunity” hires are notorious for their rude, unhelpful service.


    1. Absolutely right, and I think this has something to do with the fact that being an air stewardess is still a highly sought after career in Korea. It’s seen as glamorous (in the real sense of the word ;) ), difficult to get into, therefore becoming one means you’ve been successful, it pays reasonably well considering the other perks, and perhaps most important of all, it’s a profession dominated by women. Whatever people may say about discrimination against women in this case, you can’t take away from the fact that in Korea this is one of the few professions where women have the edge over men. I agree that this advert makes the woman look like a servant (it would do the same if it was a man as well), but the truth is lots of Korean women would really like to do her job. It’s a coveted job to some people, a bit like being a model but you get to wear real clothes and not be hounded by cameras. I’ve certainly met Koreans (usually women, spoken with no small hint of jealousy) who consider flight stewardess to be interchangeable with beautiful, successful woman.


      1. Sorry, I know this is my third comment in about 3 seconds but I’ve just thought of what it is that bothers me about this advert. It is the very fact that people want to do this job in Korea. Everyone knows the hiring policy is for attractive, young women. That’s what the company (rich men) and their rich (predominantly male) business-class Korean clients want. All of that is represented with no sense of irony in the advert, and people still want to do it.

        I can imagine an Korean Air job advertisement might read somewhat similarly to an advert for a “high-class escort” (right turn of phrase??):

        Wanted: Female under the age of 35, must be tall, attractive, well spoken with good manners and able to wear high heels for extended periods to spend evenings with wealthy businessmen.

        And yet it’s a job many Korean women would love to do.


        1. A Western counterpart to this kind of attitude would be professional cheerleaders. You have to be young, athletic, and attractive, while the pay is actually quite terrible. An NFL cheerleader makes a pittance on a per-game basis while having to deal with a brutal workout schedule to ensure she is in the right “shape”.

          So why do so many young girls want to do it? Because it is quite simply a glamorous job. You get to wear skimpy outfits and appear on TV. You are a sex symbol. Men want you. Women want to be like you.

          From this perspective, it’s quite easy for me as a Westerner to understand why a Korean woman would want to become a flight attendant. They get to dress up and look pretty. The pay is decent, and working conditions are nice. They meet a lot of interesting people from diverse backgrounds. They actually tend to be well-educated and speak multiple languages. In a way, they are Korea’s first ambassadors for visiting tourists.

          Why should we expect these women to not desire such a job simply because of a few ads that foreigners might find demeaning? If Korea is a patriarchal society that affords women few opportunities for personal advancement, then who are we to cluck our tongues in disapproval when they exercise their own agency to pursue the most attractive jobs available?

          It’s one thing to analyze the cultural issues that Korea has with regards to gender inequality, but please, let’s give these ladies a little credit. I think most of them know exactly what they’re doing, and that is making the best out of a bad situation.


          1. I guess what I’m saying is I totally agree with you. It is a shame that a job that uses you for sex appeal is considered highly sought after in Korea. If women had better career opportunities, then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion…


          2. Thanks Q, although I’m not actually trying to take anything away from Korean female flight attendants or people who want to be them. I think perhaps I was a little too over-zealous in my commenting, but I do think it’s an excellent thing that this is an industry or job that women dominate in Korea – a point I was trying to make above. I just think that it’s a shame that they got this break in part due to sexist male reasoning – on behalf of the clients and the company.


  4. My first thought when I saw that flight attendant kneeling on the floor is the word Korean adults say to babies when the babies want to touch something dirty: “geegee!” On a related note, the Korean Air commercial I’ve seen here in the States is very swank/high class e.g. bunch of rich people lolling around in expensive looking places…


  5. Seamus your comment “I agree that this advert makes the woman look like a servant” leads me to say “Well, it’s their job to serve.” In the US—my home country—at least people view customer service as beneath them, as a position demeaning in and of itself, even if you take the kneeling out. Any Western critics who jump all over this ad are inappropriate, and I think I’d have to break out the “you don’t understand Korean culture” line on them.


  6. I had two conflicting reactions to the top image–one was that it looked almost exactly like the body language of a Japanese ryokan (traditional inn) attendant (except her feet would be tucked). They kneel before they enter a room, and kneel when they’re serving dinner. So that attitude of gracious, traditional, old-fashioned service is what I assume they’re trying to convey, but if I hadn’t stayed in ryokans, I don’t think it would have popped into my head.

    But the second reaction was that it looked way too subservient and also inappropriate for an airplane setting. :p

    Tellingly, although I refer to this job as “flight attendant” normally, I habitually slip up and say “stewardess” when I’m referring to the staff on EVA and JAL. They’re really still playing that role, aren’t they? Women in the 1950s and 1960s in the US also (supposedly) were excited by the idea of being stewardesses, because there were so few interesting career choices open to them. It doesn’t really say positive things about that profession; it says negative things about the rest of the work situation, I suspect.

    I don’t mean that there isn’t value in cheerful and attentive customer service, or that it’s always a warning sign if women are the majority of the members of a profession. However, I still think there’s probably trouble here. (See the vast history of harassment lawsuits by flight attendants against pursers and pilots, cases of having to sue to wear safer footwear, etc., all of which are tied to gender.)

    Anyway, I’ve wandered off my original comment, which was just that I was amused by my two different reactions. :)


  7. Part of the problem with her kneeling is that while in the Korean (and Japanese) context it may denote a serving position associated with politeness YOU WOULDN’T KNEEL ON A FREAKIN’ AIRPLANE!!! In fact, the ad completely fails to remove her from an airline/flight context and place her in one where the kneeling position would make sense – for example, a Korean traditional room, or, as Clarissa notes, a ryokan. Heck, if they had replaced the wine glass with something like a traditional tea set it may still have worked. But flight attendants don’t work in a kneeling position, and you don’t drink wine on the floor. Somebody didn’t think it through all the way. Imagine the wine glass replaced with a Korean-style teapot in your head, and see if the vibe doesn’t change a bit. But they didn’t, and that’s what gives it the creepiness.

    I’m with James that I don’t necessarily connect it with sexual innuendo of any kind, but . . .yeah, it’s still discomforting and wrong just for what it says about status.


  8. The Korean Air ad reminds me of that awful early 70s “I’m Cheryl, fly me” ads. The kneeling woman is servile, not sexual, but in a role commonly filled by women waiting on men. Think of that recent link to a foreign teacher’s experience with a middle-aged Korean man expecting a woman to wash his cup. I perceive the ad as sexist because it reinforced the role of young women as office flowers who look pretty while serving men. YUCK!


  9. When I see an ad like this, I think “by men, for men.” Korean Air peddling this servile young maiden shit obviously isn’t interested in getting my business.


  10. Seems sort of like this:

    ‘In the mockumentary, the original cover, according to recording company representative Bobbi Fleckmann, featured “a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out…holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it.” ‘

    From This is Spinal Tap

    Oddly enough, some people seemed to have a problem with this.

    Can’t see why.


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