Sex, Self-Confidence, and Social Activism: When Women Made Soju Ads

Korea’s first ‘femveritising’ campaign was a fun take on sexual double standards, and popular among women too.
uee heart(Source: Celebrity Republic)

A request from a reader:

      Hello Grand Narrative readers! I’m reaching out for some help for a research project I’m working on about female empowerment trends in Korea and opportunities for brands to play in that space.

I’m looking for recent examples of brands, organizations and entertainment personalities empowering girls and females through products, campaigns, messages or services in Korea, similar to Nike’s Seoul Women’s Race, Whisper’s #likeagirl campaign or femvertising campaigns abroad.

Unfortunately, these are hard to find as Korea hasn’t quite embraced the trend like other nations. As such, I’m also looking for the opposite — recent examples of who is doing it completely wrong and sending messages of conforming to male-informed and limiting traditional stereotypes?

Any help, examples, or opinions are greatly appreciated! Please email me at

James: Alas, all the examples I can think of are quite old. Still, to get the ball rolling, and because I think its empowering aspects deserve to be much better known, let me take this opportunity to quickly mention the best, and possibly first and only well-executed one: Lotte Liquor’s ‘Think Casual’ campaign for Cheoum Cheoreom (“Like the First Time”) Cool soju, from back in Autumn 2009:

I admit, that hardly looked like a bra-burning moment. Nor even all that different to any other soju commercials before or since, for which a young woman dancing in revealing clothes is de rigueur. And Uee, then 21, was no fledgling feminist icon either, reveling in the increasing attention she gained through her objectification. (Albeit likely having little choice in the matter.)

Frankly, I completely dismissed it at the time.

But it was different. That “Am I really your first?” question, and the men’s reactions? Those may seem pretty innocuous from a Western perspective, but they still got netizens riled-up. As did messages in posters like the one below, easy to reject as just another soju pin-up if you—ahem—didn’t take the time to read the text. Because ultimately, not only was the campaign breaking strong taboos on openly acknowledging this thing called sex, but it was directly challenging the double standards for women too.

UEE Soju Cool Honest(The text reads: “Q: When you travel with your boyfriend, which is cooler: admitting it to your parents, or lying and saying you’re going on a trip with your university friends? A: Think Casual”. Source: Naver blog, untitled.)

Rather than backtracking in the face of the ensuing negative publicity however, the advertisers were justifiably proud of what they were doing, as explained by Olga Fedorenko in her chapter “South Korean Advertising as Popular Culture” in The Korean Popular Culture Reader (2014, p. 356):

…[Uee’s] ‘cool shot dance’ achieved a viral popularity, young women recording their own versions and posting them online. Many other [netizens], however, were offended by what they saw as encouragement of promiscuity, noting that Uee looked “too easy,” that her coolness about sexual matters was inappropriate for her young age and “innocent face.” As I investigated the campaign, I was surprised to learn that the advertising team behind it included a few young and well-educated women who saw the ad as empowering and were hoping that young people, whom the ad targeted to broaden the traditional demographics of soju consumption, would perceive it the same way. In other words…they pushed for individual sexual freedom against oppressive norms, and the ‘Think Casual’ campaign became a site for negotiating parameters of female sexuality. The advertising agency took a leading a role in challenging patriarchal mores — reflecting the worldview of advertising workers, who saw themselves as representing the worldviews of the target consumers.

To put those patriarchal mores in some perspective, ironically just this February Uee would again be chastised for admitting to sexual experience and desires, this time in real life. (Note: she was just about to turn 27.) Also, it’s female celebrities that have received the brunt of fans’ anger for all the dating ‘scandals’ of the past year.

That said, things may have reached a tipping point. Because, given their overexposure in popular culture, Korean celebrities are very much considered role models, who are expected to follow high moral standards accordingly. With so many revealed to be in relationships now though, and getting caught spending their limited time together in hotels, it’s just getting too difficult to defend the notion that us mere mortals can’t or shouldn’t be able to do the same, or pretend that we haven’t always been doing so anyway.

But that’s a subject for another post. In the meantime, good or bad, please pass on more examples of femvertising to, and/or mention them here, even if you can’t remember all the details. (I’ll follow them up.) Also, if it emerges that there haven’t really been any femvertising campaigns in the last six years, or at least none as provocative as this one, then I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on why. Thanks!

Update: One more recent example of positive femvertising could be Zigbang’s campaign aimed at 20 and 30-somethings stuck living with their parents — something which again points to the need for evaluating empowerment in terms of its cultural context, and for preparing campaigns accordingly. But I still draw the line at anything that includes aegyo!

7 thoughts on “Sex, Self-Confidence, and Social Activism: When Women Made Soju Ads

  1. Actually acting like whores and prostitutes come all too naturally to Koreans.

    In North Korea, women are recruited to sexually serve the elites.

    In South Korea, women must have sex with agents to get a leg up in the entertainment industry.

    During WWII, Japanese used and enjoyed Korean women as whores.

    Since the Cold War, Korean women served as prostitutes to white and black American soldiers. So many of them. Indeed, the #1 topic of American men when it comes to Korea and Philippines is the ‘easy girls’ who put out for a few bucks.

    And K-pop advertise Korean women as mindless sex robots going through mechanical motions.

    The West hast traditionally seen the East as the Feminine Other. Since Asian men are smaller, Western men figure they can go to the East, easily impress Asian women, and have sex with them. So, the West is male, East is female. Western men, white and black, sexually conquer Eastern women, while Asian men just watch their women conquered by men of other races. What loser dorks.

    And Asian women, especially Koreans, now prefer foreign men and foreign everything. They get plastic surgeries to look white. They want to have Eurasian looking babies with the seeds/semen of white men. And many are crazy about hip hop and rap, increasing number of Korean women see asian men as racially-and-sexually inferior and want to have babies with black men who are the star athletes and studs of America.

    But then, of course, Korean men have long treated Korean women as pieces of meat. So, acting like cheap sexual property comes all too naturally to Korean women.

    But if you want to believe that some Korean girl who drinks and smokes and acts trashy is ’empowering’, go right ahead.

    But I wonder… what will happen to a woman if she indulges in hedonism all her life? Is that any kind of meaningful life?

    Or are you one of those Asians are so monkey-see-monkey-do that your idea of goodness and progress is simply imitating the trashy culture of the West where the barrier between mainstream culture and pornography has all but dissolved?


      1. Thank you for banning that person. Their comment really grossed me out.

        Anyway, I love this ad. I think this is a huge step in both advertising (which I find normally shames someone to make them buy their products) and Korean feminism. I hope this advertising team makes more empowering ads like this.


        1. Thanks for your support, and I’m glad you like the ads. Honestly though, I’m a little pessimistic about seeing more like them in the near future, because like I say it seems there’s been zip in the six years since, and the Zigbang campaign I mention was really only femvertising-lite at best, with the female empowerment just being incidental. Likewise with another possibility, Durex Korea’s first condom ads, which I raved about at the time because they showed women being proactive about contraception…but which turned out to just be one-off copies of overseas commercials, with the Durex Korea webpage and FB page so on still having — and continuing to have — a very male-centric, Maxim-like vibe to them.

          Would be very happy to be proven wrong though(!), either through old campaigns I’ve missed or by new ones coming out!


        1. Yeah, right. Banning a commenter who opens with “Actually acting like whores and prostitutes come all too naturally to Koreans” means I can’t accept criticism.

          Either way, one inane one-liner from you is more than enough for me.



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