Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Korea’s Celebrity Obsession, Part 1: The numbers

Lee Hyori Soju Endorsement(Source: Jennifer Sundt, @Tomorrowland. Reproduced with permission)

You know there’s a lot of celebrities in Korean ads. It’s probably why you recognize so many of them, even if you hate K-pop and Korean dramas.

For something so integral to the Korean media-cultural landscape though, it’s surprising that no-one seems to have worked out just how many Korean ads do have celebrities. Months of googling and poring over the books, and still the most recent systematic surveys I’ve found were done over a decade ago.

Maybe there’s just too many to count these days?

But numbers matter. To me, because I’ve long contended that the financial imperatives of K-pop are driving its increasing sexualization and sexual objectification (although these are not necessarily negatives), with knock-on effects for the Korean media as a whole. Specifically, that because entertainment management companies make more money from groups’ endorsements than their music, that “noise marketing” and ever more shocking “sexy concepts” are required to make them stand out from other groups. But frankly, I don’t think I’ve done my due diligence in confirming all the assumptions contained in that, nor addressed all the questions they raise. For instance:

  • Do entertainment management companies indeed make more money from endorsements than music?
  • Over time, (how) has the number of celebrities in ads changed? Are K-pop stars making up more and more of them? If so, since when?
  • Does getting attention through sexy concepts invariably lead to more advertising contracts? Can it actually discourage them instead, companies concluding that overly sexualized groups don’t have the appropriate image for their family-friendly brands? Or are companies only concerned about securing the most popular, most talked-about K-pop stars, regardless of what consumers are actually saying about them?
  • If so, why? Why are K-pop stars (presumably) so effective at raising sales, even if they have no conceivable relationship to the product(s)?
  • Have all Korean ads become more sexualized and objectifying over time, or just theirs? Do sexy concepts on stage have any relationship to what we actually see in their ads?

All those questions and more will answered in this series, although, again frankly, some answers will take much longer than others (and from my perspective, I’d be much more interested in hearing your own!). Long story short, it looks like—dammit—I’m going to have to stop complaining and do a systematic survey myself, and how and when I do that will depend on if my proposed paper on precisely that gets accepted for a K-pop conference in December (I’ll keep you posted).

For now, in this post I’ll present a summary of what numbers I have found, for the sake of providing a quick and accessible resource for readers, which can be added to as more sources come up. Part 2 will be a similar, much shorter one on the economics of K-pop, and Parts 3, 4, and 5 (and so on) will discuss all the various explanations I’ve found of why Koreans are so enamored with celebrities. Which, as I’ll explain in those, turns out to be something that extends back decades, and is eerily similar to—nay, a virtual carbon copy of—what goes on in Japan.

Sorry that my first long post in a while ends up as nothing more than a glorified bibliography though, which definitely wasn’t my intention. But this is proving to be a mammoth project, much better suited to an ongoing series. And I hope that readers appreciate the need for the stats, and that some may find them useful.

B. Kliban, How to approach a book(B. Kliban. Source: Manger Paléo)

In order of when the surveys were conducted, or when the article was published:

— A study of advertisements from The Chosun-ilbo and The New York Times throughout 2000

— More Korean ads had people in them (47%) than US ones (31.9%)

— Korean ads had a greater number of celebrities (24.1%) than US ones (9.9%; both figures out of all ads surveyed)

— Of those ads with celebrities, US ones had more product-relevant celebrities (77.4%) than Korean ones did (38.3%).

  • Son, T. W. (2001). Success of advertising depends on the appropriateness of celebrity use.
    Advertising Information (Korean), November, 440-450.

— Paek, p. 136, explains of this: “Of the TV commercials screened, about 32% of the ads included celebrity endorsers, and 59% of primetime TV commercials used celebrities as endorsers.” But he doesn’t provide any more information sorry.

— A very comprehensive survey, of 7728 unduplicated television commercials in 25 countries between February 2001 and December 2003. The Korean ones examined were on MBC, between 18:30-21:30, May 18-19, 2001; and on MBC/SBS/KBS 2 between 18.00-24.00, on October 22-November 14, 2001.

— This graph of the results (p. 10) is very revealing (click to make it larger):

Commercials with celebrities, cross-country comparison, 2001-2003The author, Carolus Praet of the Otaru University of Commerce, seems like the expert on celebrity advertising in this part of the world (see here for a list of his publications). Once I get a hold of his more recent “Korea As Number One: A Multi-country Study of Celebrity Advertising Around the World,” in Proceedings of the Korean Advertising Society (KAS) Far East International Conference in Advertising, pp. 367-375 (2012), I’ll add it here.

— Study based on Korean and US television from 29 July to 2 August 2002

— 57% of Korean commercials featured a celebrity, compared to 9% of US ones

— Of those Korean celebrities, 70% were actors, actresses, and singers; only 47% of the US ones were

These results come via page 50 of Roald Maliangkay, “Catering for the Female Gaze: The Semiotics of Masculinity in Korean Advertising,” in Situations: Cultural Studies in the Asian Context, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 2013/14, pp. 43-62.

  • Hong Tack-Kim, “Characteristics, History, and Forecasts of Creativity in Korea,” in Korean Advertising: Facts and Insights, 218-274 (Seoul, KOBACO, 2007). As I type this, the PDF download isn’t working; see here for a cached version instead. It says:

— From page 272-273: “Some 2,000 television commercials are produced in Korea every year.
Among those, commercials that use famous spokesmodels account for almost 70 percent. Most of these famous spokesmodels are celebrities.”

This reference comes via page 357 of Olga Federenko, “South Korean Advertising as Popular Culture,” in The Korean Popular Culture Reader, ed. by Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe, Duke University Press 2014, pp. 341-362, who explains that “In the first decade of this century, 70-75% of Korean ads featured celebrities,” but adds in a footnote that—story of my life!—”Precise statistics are hard to find and most authors quote their estimates without providing sources.”

See also her 2012 PhD, “Tending to the ‘flower of capitalism:’ Consuming, producing and censoring advertising in South Korea of the ’00s” (download as a PDF here), in my view easily the best and most comprehensive guide to modern Korean advertising (albeit only just discovered while writing this sorry; I’ll return to it in a later post). She mentions endorsements and celebrities in passing throughout, but in footnote 22 of page 103 specifically she references Eom Nam-hyun, “FTC suggests guidelines to advertising in which celebrities appear,” Ad Starts 2009: 2009 Busan International Advertising Festival with Metro (English edition), page 10, as another example of one of those estimates. As its single, hard to find link makes me nervous, let me copy and paste it here just in case that is ever taken down:

Celebrity appearances in advertisements are a worldwide trend. It is said that 75% of Korean TV ads use celebrities as well as 70% of Japanese ads.

However, as for America, the percentage of commercials using celebrities or famous people in ads is only about 25%, which proves that in both Korea and Japan, using celebrities in ads is a general basis of the advertising creative strategy. Additionally, the celebrities’ high rate of TV commercial appearances leads into a prevailing trend in which the same celebrity shows up on several different commercials of different products.

For this, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) re-established new guidelines for putting famous people and celebrities into ads which draw our attention.

According to the guidelines, celebrities in ads have to candidly convey their opinion on the products and their thoughts about their experience of using the product.  Advertisers also must fully communicate with the celebrities about the ads. The interesting thing is that FTC asked the celebrities to be cautious about choosing ads in which they promote products.

It also stated that if the celebrities convey wrong information about products or alluring contents to the general public, the responsibility rests on them. Because of these guidelines, it is expected that celebrities will have difficulties when appearing in ads of a similar category of business and in ads of competing brands.  / Nam-Hyun Eom, Doctorate Course of Advertising, Texas University.

— “Among the 2,000 commercials produced in Korea last year, 65 percent featured celebrities. In the U.S., United Kingdom and France, the rate is less than 10 percent.”

Korea Celebrity Endorsements Hyun-bin HiteI think that’s where I got those figures for the France and the UK in one of my presentations. But, years after I first prepared the slide, now *cough* I’ve no idea where I got those figures for China and Brazil, or why I didn’t say the US was also 10%…

Either way, being unsourced, obviously I can no longer use it. Also, no offense to Hyun-bin above (he’s hardly the only offender), but I do remember why I chose his picture last month: his classic, terrible example of simply being a “beautiful person holding a bottle“…

— “In 2012, the Seoul government urged advertisers to “exercise restraint” when a study found that idols were used in 72% of ads for alcoholic drinks.”

Specifically, it said:

“서울시는 특히 주류 광고를 통해 자주 노출되는 연예인 22명 중 17명(72%ㆍ중복 제외)이 아이돌이었고, 노출빈도 1위는 탤런트 김수현, 2위 공유, 3위 피겨 선수 김연아 순으로, 이들을 모델로 한 주류 광고가 청소년에게 상당한 영향을 미치고 있다고 분석했다.”

“In particular, Seoul city discovered that out of entertainers that frequently appear in alcohol advertisements, 17 out of 22 (72%; those that appeared in more than one advertisement were excluded) were idols. The most frequently appearing were talents Kim Soo-hyeon and Gong Yoo, and athlete Kim Yuna; having these people in alcohol advertisements has a huge influence on teenagers.”

I’m not sure how “idols” were defined by the authors though (I’ll discuss definitions in a later post), and the article confusedly begins by saying that only ads on free to air TV were studied, but then discusses results from cable TV too. Also, they lumped radio and TV commercials and newspaper ads all together, which are very different mediums.

However unreliable though, I was surprised that over 9 in 10 of those alcohol ads were for beer. I would have assumed that at least half would have been for soju?

— Finally, some very recent, but again unsourced statistics from a marketing company: “The use of celebrities in advertising varies enormously around the world. It’s highest in Japan and Korea, where over 40 percent of TV ads feature celebrities, and lowest in Ukraine, Sweden, and Canada, where the proportion is under 5 percent. It is 10 percent in the U.S., and 12 percent in the UK.”

SISTAR, Bio Industy Expo Osong Korea 2014(Source: @John_F_Power. Used with permission.)

And on that note, thanks to those complete geeks amongst you still reading(!), and please feel free to ask me for PDFs of any of the sources I’ve mentioned (I have about half of them). And if any readers know of any more sources, by all means pass them on, with my heartfelt appreciation!

6 thoughts on “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Korea’s Celebrity Obsession, Part 1: The numbers

  1. Pingback: Good Reads: 08/17-08/23 | My October Rain

  2. I’ve lurked about your blog for ages, I absolutely love it. I major in Korean studies, and currently live in Seoul; I also consume mild amounts of K-pop, and this is what led me to comment, actually. One of the questions on your list is whether entertainment companies earn more from ads than music sales. I can’t quote studies as I haven’t seen any, but based on celebrity interviews on TV and some random quotes, I’ve come to understand that individual idols are interested (if that’s the right word – obviously I don’t know their mindsets personally) in endorsement and appearing ads, because they can earn more money through these than their work with the group. This is basically because contacts with the entertainment companies usually leave the group a percentage of (music) sales that the members have to divide between themselves – take, for example, the recent and controversial coverage of the 9-member boy band ZE:A’s situation and the news revealing their contract apparently states the company gets 70%, and the nine boys are left to divide the remaining 30%. Thus, appearing alone or with just a few members in an advert or commercial earns the individual members of a group much more than their music sales or concert revenues. I can’t confirm this as I can’t recall which TV show it was, but I’m quite certain Super Junior brought it up briefly, mentioning that the members who do work individually in other TV shows like varieties, radio appearances, or commercials have a much larger income. This leads me to think idols, at least, would be enthusiastic about appearing in commercials and adverts; but considering that especially the larger companies like SM still keeps contract details a secret between the company and its idols, finding exact information is extremely difficult…

    • Thanks for your kind words about my blog, and sorry that I’ve taken so long to respond. I wish I had more to say in reply, but all I can think of is that you’ve got a good point, which is ringing a definite bell (I heard about ZE:A; honestly I’m surprised they got anything at all). But I did get that abstract of mine accepted for the December K-pop conference BTW (Yay!), so thanks for the pointers, as I definitely need to find those sources, and interviews etc. are much better than nothing. I’ll pass on what I discover in Part 2.

      Which will be soonish, as — OMG! — I only have 6 weeks left to do all the research and write the paper! :O I’d better get started…

        • It’s actually a typical thing for the idols to have debt to the companies. I recall this came up when two Singaporean girls became trainees at a company some years ago, and told their story of moving to Korea and the things they had to consider, and so on. I recently wrote something touching the subject, and an article I came across stated the costs of training idols is so high (and not everyone even debuts) – it’s money they have to pay back, and it can take years before they’ll be able to buy cars and houses and stuff. (Here’s the article: http://www.kpopstarz.com/articles/41923/20130918/244-idol-groups-debuted-last-nine-years.htm)
          Good luck on your paper! If I happen to find the interviews I mentioned I’ll send you the links. :)

  3. Pingback: Visual Dreams – how k-pop markets the idol, not the music | KPOPALYPSE

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