Conformity and Celebrity in Korean Advertising: Some Quick Thoughts

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What? Belgian surrealist art on a blog about Korean sociology? Yes indeed; but never fear, for I’ll be criticizing something Korea-related soon enough!^^

The painting in question is Golconda (1953) by René Magritte, and I’m sure many of you have seen it before. But what did you think it was about?

Personally, I’d always assumed it was a critique of conformism. But Charly Herscovici, who was bequeathed copyright on Magritte’s works, commented that (via Wikipedia):

Magritte was fascinated by the seductiveness of images. Ordinarily, you see a picture of something and you believe in it, you are seduced by it; you take its honesty for granted. But Magritte knew that representations of things can lie. These images of men aren’t men, just pictures of them, so they don’t have to follow any rules. This painting is fun, but it also makes us aware of the falsity of representation.

So although our interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive, the painting may not be quite as drab and negative as I thought. Still, does that make the concept suitable for a phone commercial?

Not really:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

No, I can’t really think of any relationship between the artistic concept and the voiceover droning on through the “U” section of the dictionary either. And ironically, the result probably emphasizes conformism and/or uniformity more than Golconda does too; particularly by starting with the word “unique”, only then to visually demonstrate how owning a Galaxy S phone will make you anything but.

Explicitly stating the opposite however, Rain’s (비) recent commercial for the SK-W Phone provides an interesting contrast:

And at least the copywriting does match the video this time (translation from the uploader):

– Do you want to be in the spotlight as just one of all dressed in the same form?

– You can be a real star only when there is an aura about you.

– (Rain’s voice): Your desire to want someone’s attention is one good enough reason to want ‘W’.

– ‘W’ which is really quite something with its own shining aura (repeated two times)

Or in other words, if you’re just the same as everyone else, then owning a special SK-W phone will compensate for your lacking any special qualities, thereby helping you get the girl.

Or will you? It takes no great leap of the imagination to see that if I can get a shining aura of sexual magnetism to rub off on me by purchasing the phone, then so can you too. Indeed, you can argue that the explicitness of the above message actually only serves to highlight that mundane, self-defeating reality of consumerism.

So why then, were over 100,000 sold in the month after its release?

Alas, I know nothing about the merits of the phone itself. But some advertorials have directly linked its success to Rain’s dancing in the commercial, and I can disagree with that at least, finding the first part of his dance more reminiscent of an imitation of Robocop than anything else (source, right). Instead, I would attribute it more to the fact that it simply features one of Korea’s biggest celebrities, an unfortunate mainstay of Korean advertising. As Londoner Bruce Haines puts it, currently head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide (제일기획):

Q) What’s one big difference between advertising in Korea and the UK?

A) Celebrity endorsement – a huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people. Of course, it’s not uncommon in the West for stars to endorse a product, but generally the ad has a core idea and makes use of the celebrity endorsement to enhance the original concept. Not so in Korea. In its crudest form, Korean advertising degenerates to beautiful people holding a bottle. This is one of the things holding back the reputation of Korean advertising worldwide.  (10 Magazine)

And on top of that, perhaps I’m really quite misguided in assuming that the messages of conformity wouldn’t find a receptive audience among Korean consumers too. After all, however much of a gross generalization it sounds at first, in fact emphasizing both have been strong political and economic prerogatives of the South Korean state for much of its short history, and with profoundly gendered consequences.

What do you think? Either way, if this collection of my thoughts on the 2 commercials must(?) have a conclusion, then it would be that I’d like to see more alternatives to the dominate narrative of simply throwing expensive celebrities and/or their bodies at consumers. And I don’t mean simply throwing art at them instead!^^

In the case of smart phones specifically, perhaps we could have ones that emphasized how they can be genuinely helpful and empowering for ordinary people?

At first, I thought this one qualified:

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But in hindsight, a demonstration of how phones can help you be like everyone else isn’t quite what I had in mind. If you know of any then, please pass on any better ones, for phones or anything else!


16 thoughts on “Conformity and Celebrity in Korean Advertising: Some Quick Thoughts

  1. Yeah, phones seem especially linked to pop stars. Not only will they show their faces in an ad, they’ll do short-film length special cf’s like this fairly solid piece of storytelling featuring Lee Hyori from a couple of years back

    ..or songs created for the occasion. I’m sure you’ve seen the many cellphone songs SNSD alone have done, for the Chocolate phone, the Cooky phone, the Anycall Haptic. Recall that LG’s ‘Chocolate Love’ campaign featured two full-scale music videos, from both SNSD and f(x), and that the song was produced by the Grammy-award winning Bloodshy & Avant.

    And from all those campaigns I really can’t remember anything about the phones’ strengths.

    If Mr. Haines is head of the largest ad agency, surely he can do something about what he perceives as problems, though?


    1. Yes I have, and the Lollipop series with G-Dragon and Sandara Park and so on also comes to mind. I probably should mention though, that I don’t at all mind famous faces in phone ads per se, this even older one with Lee Hyori in particular being sort of a guilty pleasure of mine:

      It provides an interesting contrast to the one with Rain too, for although I’m quite happy to admit that I’m much more likely to like it because it has an attractive woman in it, that doesn’t mean that I will. This one though, does at least have good music and good dancing, both of which are linked to the ad’s artistic concept (the smiles are a bit too much though). In contrast, God knows what the fuck Rain’s dance was all about, and which Breda below just found creepy!

      Hell, I even like the male version of Lee Hyori’s ad with Kwon Sang-woo too, and for the same reasons:


  2. that second video is funny :D I’m for that phone..
    @abcfsk (what does that stand for? ^^) Hmm..I guess they just want to persuade consumers with emotions, not with the facts.. It’s easier to do so if you’ve got only 30 seconds to get on that buyer’s brain and “I WANT THAT RIGHT NOW”-list. ;)


    1. You’ve got a point. Especially as it would only be the 15-second version that would ever actually be shown on television (virtually all Korean ads come in 15-second TV and 30-second internet versions these days).


  3. I can’t read Unique. Maybe he says eunich?

    Anyway the commercial is a little bit weird? Unique / Ubiquitous?
    It feels like a commercial produced by a advertising agency directed by the sales manager of a company.


    1. Apart from the Robocop thing, with me it’s also the fact that the dance seems completely out of sync with and unconnected to the music. Which also characterizes his dancing in general I find, so I’ve always found him rather overrated really.


      1. I beg to differ with you on Rain’s dancing. I find Rain to be a really good hip hop/pop dancer. He’s actually usually very ON beat. How much do you know about that style of dance?


  4. Do you remember this ad? It’s quite explicitly about conformity and how buying a phone makes one ‘unique’. It’s also quite racist. I think Rain is very overrated too!


  5. I think the same, to a lesser extent, can be said of Korean stars and digital cameras as well. I’ve been trying to think of comparisons with stars back in the united states, but I can’t think of any!

    Most of the stars in the US do their heavy commercial slogging out of country maybe for fear it would tarnish their credibility or likability?

    Cell phones here seem so disposable and replaceable that I wonder how many they would sell even without a celebrity mini movie or commercial endorsement.


    1. Agreed for the most part, and I think the star factor ruins a lot of camera commercials in particular, as in many (not all) we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief and pretend that Rain or Han Hyo-joo and so on aren’t celebrities but mere poetic, artistic souls instead, who regularly spend weeks hanging around in Florence or wherever simply to be inspired by and take pictures of the architecture, then to write about in in their journals in coffee shops just like every other pretentious 20-something.

      Actually, come to think of it Han Hyo-joo has genuinely spent some vacations just for photography, so I take that back about her. But any other celebrity who hasn’t who pretends to be a penniless photographer backpacking around Europe? It’s almost patronising.

      As for the US celebrities doing commercials overseas, Japan would easily be the biggest place for that, but with many having clauses in the contracts that state that they can’t be shown overseas. Don’t know if they still apply with the internet and all though.

      But as for celebrities being required to sell all the constant new phones though (or indeed anything), you could just as easily argue that people are actually quite tired of always seeing the same concepts that often amount to little more than dumping a celebrity in front of the camera, and from the advertisers’ perspective they’re probably not all that cost effective anyway.


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