Korean Sociological Image #43: ESL Students on Top?

( Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling. Reproduced with permission )

A recent advertisement for the Pagoda chain of language institutes noticed by Matt of Gusts of Popular Feeling, who notes that the attraction “is clearly for women to get close to, to have one on one communication with, and to have almost direct contact with the male foreign teacher.”

In any other context this would be unremarkable, but unfortunately the Korean media is notorious for presenting foreign male – Korean female relationships either negatively or not at all (although this is slowly improving). So this advertisement really stands out for the rare, quite literal closeness of the models in it, albeit not necessarily in a romantic sense.

In contrast, Japanese language institutes have already been advertising this way for a long time, as noted by Keiron Bailey in his 2006 journal article Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland: ideology, akogare, and gender alterity in English conversation school advertising in Japan. Two examples from that, both from 2002:

I’ve already discussed Bailey’s article in depth in an earlier post however, so let me just quickly highlight three points from it here:

Younger women are pursuing English-language learning for three major reasons. The first reason is to enhance their career prospects….The second purpose is to engage in travel, either for vacation purposes or for ryugaku. The third motivation is to actualize what Kelsky calls ”eroticized discourses of new selfhood” by realizing romantic and/or sexual desires with Western males. (pp.105-6)


…the visual pairing of Japanese women with white males invokes a set of social and professional properties that are radically differentiated from a hegemonic array of gender-stratifying ideologies. This metonymy relies on the properties of the white male signifier being defined in relation to a historical gendered Occidentalist imaginary as an ”agent of women’s professional, romantic and sexual liberation”. (p. 106)

And finally:

This [advertising] trend valorizes and celebrates female erotic subjectivity and positions the white male as an object of consumption for sophisticated, cosmopolitan female consumers. (p. 106)

And see that post or the article itself for more. Note that the latter was actually written in 2003 though, so I would appreciate it if any Japan-based readers could confirm if that is still in fact a trend there, and especially if you could pass on some examples. Also, I should stress that this is but one Korean example, and indeed possibly the first of its kind too, so it’s a little premature to argue that Korean language school advertisements are now going to be following the same logic that Bailey identifies. In particular, it definitely shouldn’t be taken as confirmation that Korean women are especially attracted to Western males either, a fallacy which unfortunately many expats (both male and female) seem to subscribe to.

Personally, I’d be much more interested in finding any advertisements featuring foreign female teachers instead, as the corollary of demonizing their male, mostly Caucasian, counterparts in the media in general seems to be hypersexualizing Caucasian women.  Alas, I haven’t taught in an adults language institute since 2004, so please help me: is this trend mirrored by Korean language school advertisers? Why or why not?

Meanwhile, Matt did also see an advertisement aimed at Korean male students, to whom the message appears to be “to take the intensive program and, moving beyond healthy competition, to be better than the (male) native speaker, to beat him, to be stronger than him”:

( Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling. Reproduced with permission )

Which is certainly quite a contrast! See the comments thread on Matt’s post for more commentary on both.

Update 1 – By coincidence, a commercial with a hint of an interracial relationship I saw as soon as I finished this post. Perfectly innocuous in itself, unfortunately the Korean media is almost completely devoid of anything with a reversal of the sexes:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Update 2 – Brian in Jeollanam-do remembered this Wall Street Institute advertisement from March last year:

See Brian’s blog for more commentary, and Page F30 for the original images, including the clumsily added correction to the atrocious English a few weeks later.

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


12 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #43: ESL Students on Top?

  1. Gary Norris seems to take exception to most foreign bloggers here, so I’ll have to decide whether to wade into the comment section on Matt’s post.

    To be brief, I’m sure you’d agree that given the history and the ubiquity of objectified white people in Korea, white men in advertising here aren’t just there by accident. Noting and commenting on this objectification is valid, and isn’t us claiming we’re an oppressed race. You can’t look at these ads in a vacuum, without acknowledging how foreign Caucasians, and foreign English teachers are commonly portrayed in Korea. If I ever find the time I’ll post an interesting example of this.

    Anyway, since I’m here I looked at a Wall Street International ad last year:


    “Have fun” while learning English . . . we’re given a pretty clear idea of what their idea of “fun” is. Nothing wrong with adults expressing themselves, but the ad is striking when you take into account the popular representation of male foreign English teachers (conspicuous in their absence in the commercial).


    1. Thanks for both of those, and all quite agreed (although I’ve yet to have the pleasure of Gary Norris’s commentary on my blog); I just add the words of caution that I do though, to preempt accusations of overanalysis of single advertisements, and/or wanting to impose a narrative of being persecuted as a White male on it. But the whole raison d’être of this “Sociological images” series is to provide examples on a theme as they emerge, so even if we ignore the wider issue of how English teachers are commonly portrayed in the Korea media I don’t doubt that eventually just English language institute ads alone will demonstrate that something’s going on the with the portrayal of foreign males!


  2. Eikaiwa advertising that focuses on the foreign male + Japanese woman combination can still be seen in Japan.

    Here’s an ad that was released in the first quarter of this year. Learn English so that you can help a foreign granny-in-distress and meet her “kakkoi” (attractive, stylish, cool) grandson:

    Also interesting that the Japanese woman in this ad is played by Yūki Amami, one of the most popular female celebrities in Japan. She was born in 1967, which makes her considerably older than Johnny apparently is.

    Actually, who knows what the point of this particular ad is? Cougars are an untapped market segment?


    1. Thanks for passing that on, and like you say an interesting choice of actor. I don’t know anything about her unfortunately, but I speculate perhaps her popularity was viewed as more important than having a younger woman that would be more likely to have a relationship with Johnny? Alternatively, perhaps a potential romantic relationship wasn’t implied at all, as the ending leaves many other options open.

      A third possibility is that Yūki Amami is the same age as many potential students, as I can vouch that in Korea at least many housewives take English classes as a form of hobby, often despite already being fluent.


  3. Hilarious, especially that video. Both African-American and Asian men seem obsessed with blonde Caucasion women these days. Unfortunately the Black-man/White woman pairing is popular even in US media these days, while the Asian-man/White-woman pairing is not very common.

    The reason for demonizing the Caucasian male in Korean media seems obvious: Korean men DON’T want white men taking their women (not that they have been able to stop it) and since Korea is a male-dominated society, the media would lean in favour of the Korean males’ opinions…

    I don’t really care either way. A man’s race counts for nothing. His personality is what matters at the end of the day. “Beauty” is overrated as well. For all my Sistas and White Sisters who are obsessed with the shiny image of Korean “kkotminameun” or flower boys, it’s time to wake up. You don’t have to visit the country know that flower boys, like all other men, are human beings. Please try to remember that and avoid a huge expectation collapse! They are not angels. They are the angels you want to see on TV! Why? Korea is a society that highly values appearances, that is why. Want to know the real man behind the flower boy? Wait until you date him. Please.

    And stop asking on every damn kpop forum/blog about whether or not “Korean men are attracted to white girls” or “Korean men are attracted to black girls”.


    1. “And stop asking on every damn kpop forum/blog about whether or not “Korean men are attracted to white girls” or “Korean men are attracted to black girls”.”

      lol i second this.


  4. I think we might be missing a large potential aspect of these ads or missing the point entirely.

    The first ad shows a confident, tall young woman – of the type many Koreans imagine liking to be but aren’t – who’s clearly up for the challenge. Far from looking like a friendly ass clown like Isaac Durst or a push-over pretty-boy model type, the teacher looks a bit intimidating. Just like speaking English to foreigners is for most Koreans, especially young women. Thus, there academy is the type that is associated with / produces such confident, young women who are up to the waegook’s task.

    In the second ad the fine print is too small for me to see (if I could even understand it if I could) but are you sure the Korean guy is a student and not a teacher? Perhaps the message is the flashy Korean teacher can pull more weight than the nerdy American with his bilingualism and grammar ability, and is even better than a native American teacher for frustrated students who just can’t understand most of what native teachers say.


    1. Both good points, especially about the first: although I never actually said that I thought that the ad was implying a potential romantic relationship between the models, I should have stressed more about the the confrontational aspect of it. In short, I think you’re spot on.

      I’d have to disagree about the second ad though. Looking closely at the text first, it’s a “course that concentrates on teaching actual, everyday American English”, and if students achieve certain levels in the course then they don’t have to take the SAT and/or TOEFL to get into SUNY (a US university).

      I acknowledge that there are plenty of Koreans and Gyopos that are completely fluent in both languages, and for that reason often make much better teachers than native speakers, but I think that an advertisement for a course that supposedly concentrates on “actual, everyday American English” would be the least appropriate place to stress the Koreanness of the teachers, as that would be about the only area where a native speaker could be said to have an advantage over non-native speakers (even though bilingual teachers would often still be better placed to explain/teach it).

      Moreover, if the Korean model is supposed to be a teacher, than saying that he is better than the native teacher would undermine the logic to students attending other expensive classes with the latter, although it’s also Pagoda may well prefer it if students en masse preferred Korean or Gyopo teachers, who have much lower wages etc.

      So, I think the message is to use, nay…overuse adnd abuse the native speaker teacher for his knowledge etc. etc. then like Matt says to be beat him and be better than him.

      Admittedly all that is thrown out the window if in fact it’s not actually taught by native speakers, but even then I’m not sure that the Korean would be supposed to be a teacher. As while the analogy you suggest does make sense, it’s still very poorly executed: were they involved in a tug-of-war, and the native teacher has been twisted around by the stronger? Why does the Korean model not look more definitely like a teacher (i.e. wearing a tie), but could just as readily pass for a successful, well-off student?

      Either way, as our multiple interpretations suggest, it’s a damned vague ad that should probably have been sent back to the drawing board, yes?


  5. Pingback: Mamma Mia, Narsha!

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