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Once upon a time, decent, honest Koreans wouldn’t stand for sex and nudity in their media. Gratuitous bikini models sparked outrage. Women had to appear demure and virginal in soju posters. There were no such things as “chocolate abs” to show off, so young male celebrities could make money without ripping their shirts off. The Korean internet wasn’t inundated with ads for male enhancement pills. Only slutty Caucasian women were prepared to be lingerie models. And so on.
Instead, advertisers had to rely on sexual innuendo to manufacture outrage. Mirroring Korean entertainment management companies today, who regularly claim shock and surprise that pelvic thrusts could be considered anything but wholesome family entertainment, PR representatives would feign ignorance of double-entendres that every high school student already knew full well.
Then along came “sexy concepts,” advertisers relying on cheap, “sex sells” gimmicks during the financial crisis, and the relaxation of censorship in the Korean movie industry. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Eun Ji-won Worries That There Are Too Many Sexy Concept Girl Groups.” Source: Soompi. Source below: The PR News.
Or is it? That’s certainly a convenient narrative, and probably has a grain of truth too. As I begin to examine the impact of K-pop on Korean advertising over the last eight years or so, I fully expect to confirm what everybody already knows: that there’s more sexual themes over time, and that K-pop stars, especially women, wear a lot less clothes than other celebrity endorsers.
But does that necessarily mean that sexual innuendo used to be much more common in Korean ads, when standards were stricter? It isn’t mutually exclusive with wearing revealing clothing, and you could easily argue that more liberal attitudes would actually lead to using it more often. Indeed, now it could make an otherwise boring and routine “sexy” ad stand out, as could the strategic use of Konglish too.
Just something to bear in mind as you enjoy the following examples from 2006 and earlier, which caused quite a stir as people began to notice more and more ads like them. Some are so obvious that anyone can get the message; others, you’d need to be very familiar with Korean slang to notice them at all…which makes me wonder what examples may be right under my nose today. By all means, please let me know of any, and/or of some more older ones to add to this collection.
First then, the opening one by Lee Hyori for the vitamin C drink, Vita500 (as an aside, one of the few Korean vitamin C drinks which didn’t—doesn’t?—contain carcinogenic benzene; this being Korea, only foreign news outlets would name which ones were safe). As I explained when I first wrote about it, perhaps five years ago:
…notice the “따먹는 재미가 있다” line next to her face. Simply put, the first word (not to be confused with “다먹다,” or “eat all”) is a combination of “따다, ” which has many meanings but in this case “open; uncork” would be the most appropriate, and “먹다,” which is to eat; then the next word is “재미” meaning “fun, interest,” and a “가” which must attach to it because of the final word “있다,” or “to have.” So literally:
“The act of opening and eating [this] fun has”
Eating often means eating and drinking in Korean. Naturally, a better English translation would be:
“Opening and drinking [this] is fun.”
Still a little awkward, yes? But the point is, “따먹다” has another, entirely different meaning. For instance, a guy might say to his friends:
“그여자 봐? 난 따먹었어요”
” You see that woman? I opened and ate her.”
“Eating” someone doesn’t have the same connotations in Korean, but you’re on the right track: “I fucked her” would be the most accurate translation, and so apparently Lee Hyori is saying “Fucking is fun” in the ad (End. Source, right: Kwang-Dong Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd).
Back when I first wrote about the ad, I could see nothing but the humor in it. Now, I have mixed feelings: I appreciate that that phrase is (was?) usually used in a conquest-like, objectifying way, which is why so many women felt insulted:
“Too Lewd!” Lee Hyori’s Subway Advertisement is Surprisingly Suggestive
인기가수 이효리가 모델로 등장한 한 식음료 제품 광고의 문구가 지나치게 선정적이라는 지적이 일고 있다.
A food product advertisement with popular singer Lee Hyori has been getting a great deal of attention for the use of a certain phrase in it.
이 광고는 K제약이 지하철 주요노선과 지면에 사용하고 있는 광고다. 네티즌들은 이효리가 등장한 광고 속에 ‘따먹는 재미가 있다’는 문구가 불쾌하다는 지적을 하고 있다. 해당 광고는 K제약이 지난 15일부터 병뚜껑을 따서 속을 확인하는 경품 행사를 홍보하기 위해 제작됐다 (source, left: dongA).
This advertisement by a medicine manufacturer* has been used on a major subway line in Seoul since the the 15th of March. Netizens have been indicating their displeasure with the phrase used by Lee Hyori in it to promote a competition that gives prizes to those who find marked bottletops.
(*Because of Korea’s draconian libel laws, the real name isn’t given, even though it’s blatantly obvious. This is standard practice for the Korean media.)
네 티즌 ‘구구콘’은 “난감한 지하철 광고”라는 제목으로 문제의 광고 사진을 한 인터넷 커뮤니티에 올렸다. 이에 네티즌 ‘sevenstarcider’는 “여자로서 정말 화가 나는 광고”라며 “광고 목적을 모르는 것은 아니지만 도가 지나쳤다”고 지적했다. 네티즌 ‘피부미인’도 “건강음료라는 생각보다 음란한 음료라는 생각이 먼저 든다”고 꼬집었다.
A netizen by the name of ‘Cuckoo-corn’ uploaded the above photo under the title “Strange, puzzling subway ad” to a community site about problem advertisements, and there ‘Sevenstarcider’ under the post title “An Ad That Really Makes Women Angry” wrote “it’s not that I don’t know the purpose of this ad, but that is just too much.” Also, netizen ‘Skinbeauty’ cynically wrote “my first thought is not that this is a health drink, but some kind of aphrodisiac instead.”
K 제약측은 이에 대해 “섹스 어필할 의도는 전혀 없었다”고 해명했다. 홍보팀의 한 관계자는 “광고대행사가 경품행사의 성격을 반영해 제안한 문구였다”며 “(성적으로) 이상하게 유추하는 사람들이 있지만 이효리씨의 건강미에 초점을 맞춘 것 뿐”이라고 설명했다.
About this advertisement, a representative of the PR company behind it explained that “there was absolutely no intention to use sex appeal in it,” that “the text is a simple reflection of advice about the promotion being advertised,” and finally that “while there are people who infer something sexual to it, Lee Hyori’s focus is only on the health and beauty benefits of the product.”
그동안 성적 연상효과를 노린 광고 문구들이 적지 않았던 탓에 ‘야한’ 광고가 다시 도마에 올랐다.
As there have been lot of advertisements with sexual innuendos in their text so far, this subject is again becoming controversial.
지 난해 배두나와 신하균이 모델로 나선 한 무선인터넷 광고는 “어,끈이 없네”, “밖에서 하니까 흥분되지” 등과 같은 대사로 시청자들의 비난을 샀다. 1990년대 모 아이스크림 광고에서는 여성 교관이 남성 훈련병에게 “줘도 못먹나”라고 말해 세간의 입방아에 오르내렸다. 90년대 후반에는 영화 ‘원초적 본능’의 여배우 샤론 스톤이 등장한 국내 정유회사 광고가 논란에 휩싸였다. 빨간 스포츠카에 올라탄 샤론 스톤이 “강한 걸로 넣어주세요”라고 말했기 때문.
For example, last year , Bae Doo-na and Shin Ha-kyun appeared in an advertisement for a wireless internet company which included the line “Because [we] do [it] outside, [it’s] much more exciting!,” which generated a lot of complaints. Also, in the early 1990s, an advertisement for an ice cream company featured a female drill instructor saying to a new male recruit “I gave [it] to you to eat, but you can’t eat it [well]!,” and finally in the late-1990s a gasoline advertisement featuring Sharon Stone climbing into a red sports car had her saying “only put strong [things] inside.” (James: See below for the latter two).
광고주들은 섹스어필 의도성을 강하게 부인해왔다. 그러나 한 광고업계 종사자는 “광고 문구를 지을 때 섹스어필한 표현을 찾기 마련”이라고 귀띔했다 (source, right: *cough* Ilbe).
While in public advertising companies strongly deny that they use sexual innuendos in advertisements, an industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that of course they do in reality.
K제약 측은 올해 이효리가 출연하는 3편의 광고를 더 제작할 계획이다. 이효리는 지난 1월 K제약과 1년동안 계약금 8억원에 광고모델 출연계약을 맺었다.
In January, the medicine manufacturer signed a contract with Lee Hyori to appear in three more advertisements for the company over the next year, for the fee of 800 million won (End).
Now for some more examples, found via a list compiled by this blogger. Predating Youtube though, and with very little information given, sorry that I was only able to find half of them. Also, sorry that I’m struggling to see anything even remotely sexual in some of them, let alone funny; again, they defy shoehorning into some narrative about Korean media liberalization, which is why I haven’t placed this post into my “Korean Sociological Image” series. Hopefully though, the tuna fish commercial alone will more than compensate…
(Update, January 2022: My apologies again that some videos have been removed from YouTube since I wrote this in 2014. I have copies of them and am happy to share, but am wary of uploading them myself and getting copyright strikes sorry!)
“벗겨도 벗겨도 변함없고, 먹어도 먹어도 깊은 그 맛…”
“Even if you take it off, it’s the same. Even you eat and eat, that deep taste…”
“줘도 못 먹나?”
“I’m offering it. How come you can’t eat it?”
Via The Paris Match, a related eclair ad that had my wife ROTFL at the repeated references to how long and sweet it was, with all its creamy goodness.
“따 먹고 합시다!!!”
Just in case you miss the symbolism of the shellfish for the women’s tuna, and the peppers for the men’s, at the end they all say “Let’s open [it] and eat [it] and do it!”.
“난, 샤론 스톤, 본능적으로 강한 게 좋아요. 강한 걸로 넣어주세요”
“I’m Sharon Stone, I instinctively like something strong. Please put something strong in.”
“오늘도 촉촉하게 젖었습니다.”
“Today too I am wet”
“사람들이 저보고 너구리래요. 너구리가 뭐가 어때? 통통하고 맛만 좋은데…”
“People call me ‘Raccoon.’ What’s wrong with being a raccoon? It’s chubby and tasty…”
No innuendo here: the blogger just notes that Song Yun-ah has her legs open as the car approaches. Even I thought that this was reading a bit much into it though (she’s hardly spread-eagled, and the car is approaching from the wrong direction!), even if it does have an exploding fire-hydrant straight after the shot of her.
(남자 엉덩이를 때리면서) “줄 때 받자….”
(While hitting men’s bottoms): “Receive it when I give it to you…”.
Not to detract from the very real sexual harassment which women face every day, or that its victims are overwhelmingly women. But still: it’s difficult to see anyone accepting this commercial if the sexes were reversed.
Finally, see here and here for some more examples from 2009, and probably many readers will find this list inadequate without the following, supposedly banned ads. I’m not sure that either actually went to air though:
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)