The Korean Media’s War on Women (and Men)

Via 10 Confessions, here is a short but quite rare “expo on the focus of the mass media and internet news sites on superficial looks of the entertainers in the industry, and how this trend needs to change.” Sorry that it’s all in Korean, but 10 Confessions provides a good (English) description of it, and it’s the least I can do to pass on the videos themselves (especially after spending half an hour looking for them!).

To see the segment, jump ahead to 2:30 in the first video. It lasts until 4:10 in the second.

Bikinis, Breasts, and Backlash: Revealing the Korean Body Politic in 2012

(Sources: left, right; edited from originals)

Whenever someone strips for the sake of drawing attention to some cause, usually my instant, gut reaction is to dismiss it as a crass stunt. Unless it’s for Slutwalk or FEMEN, then I’m just too suspicious of their real motives, especially if they’re not already famous.

That’s why I didn’t cover this woman back in January, who wrote a message of support for jailed Naneum Ggomsuda (나는 꼼수다) podcaster Chung Bong-ju (정봉주) across her breasts; as while she was anonymous herself (ish), other men and women that followed her example certainly weren’t. Although, in hindsight, only a handful of pictures would actually be sent in, despite an audience of millions, and I overlooked that one of the men was already semi-famous as Chung Bong-ju’s photographer, at the time the podcasters’ call for more bikini shots just seemed like an invitation for a repeat of 2006 and 2010, when women vied with each other to become famous by wearing the most revealing Red Devil costumes.

But then Nancy Lang (낸시 랭) paraded around Seoul in a bikini two days before the April elections, which made me sit very uncomfortably in my seat. Because after lauding her as a “pin-up grrrl” back in November, I couldn’t be quite so dismissive this time, even though her street performance was surely just as crass, and its connection to its ostensible cause — encouraging people to vote — tenous at best. Yet other than a long history of doing similar such performances, how was she really any different from those Naneun Ggomsuda supporters that wrote messages on themselves back in January, and for whom she’d even expressed her support? How about all the other similarly-themed protests and/or pledges over the past few months too, including Kwak Hyun-hwa’s (곽현화) above?

(Sources: left, right)

So, wanting to learn more about the efficacy of such protests, and particularly how useful — or possibly counterproductive — they are in a feminist sense, I realized that “Bikini Girl” deserved a second look. Or, more specifically, what her breasts ultimately raised. For as many of you will already be well aware, the reactions of the podcasters to them, and especially their encouragement of more such pictures, was soon critiqued by many on both the Left and the Right…which in turn led to counter-critiques of those critiques, then the Right chastising the Left for not critiquing the podcasters more, and so on — it was all very confusing. What was necessary was a chronology of events, which indeed I provide below.

But think about it: when breasts become not so much a mere body part as a titillating device for political parties and media allies to score points against each other, then to put it mildly you can’t trust just any one source’s interpretation and depiction of events, and especially not just rely on those that happen to be in English. Which is just common sense, but it deserves reiterating (and for another good illustration of partisan reporting, make sure to see the Korean media’s reaction to netizen attacks on newly-elected Philippine-born Jasmine Lee). So, the other posts in what must inevitably become this series will be translations of some Korean ones, starting with this, then this, this, this, this, and/or any more I can find (and/or readers recommend).


Still further complicating matters however, events have coincided with a potential emerging “~녀/girl” meme, in which a series of incidents involving (mostly) young women have left a host of misogynistic netizen reactions in their wake. In particular, for me personally it was this recent incident on a bus, in which a woman in her twenties — out of many angry passengers — was unfairly singled out for criticism, that signaled that something far more pernicious than simple netizen ranting was afoot, and that the backlash against changing gender-relations in Korea that led to the disparaging “beanpaste girl” (dwenjang nyeo; 된장녀) term in the mid-2000s was still very much around.

Even if, ultimately, there are no real connections, it would be strange to analyze bikini and nude protests — some of which arguably very much challenged prevailing conceptions of  “appropriate” displays of sexuality and expressions of sexual subjectivity — without also considering that a potential backlash against changing gender-relations is also occurring. Hence expect more translations about the latter also.


On top of that, as if to taunt me, over the last 2 weeks Uniqlo Korea happened to have a “Women’s Freedom Event“, used to sell their “BraTop”. By this stage thoroughly sick of breasts (okay, not really; but I’m sure you can appreciate the sentiment), this choice of language instantly raised some alarm bells, as it reminded me of the following:

…some advertisers, aware of the objections of the feminist movement to traditional images of women in ads, have incorporated the criticism into their ads, many of which now present an alternative stereotype of the cool, professional, liberated women…Some agencies trying to accommodate new attitudes in their campaigns, often miss the point and equate ‘liberation’ with a type of aggressive sexuality and very unliberated coy sexiness (G. Dyer, Advertising as Communication, 1982, pp. 185-86; quoted in D. Strinati, An Introduction of Theories of Popular Culture, 1995, pp. 187-88)

Or indeed “freedom” rather than “liberation”. And, technically speaking, Uniqlo is simply appropriating the word in order to simply sell more clothes. But even if I have always had a fondness for the company, it did interview some genuinely cool women as part of its campaign, and, recalling the line of inquiry that started this 3-week(!) post, provides a healthy reminder to myself to: a) reconsider some of my prejudices and gut reactions to things; and b) not read too much into things.

And on that note, let me apologize for how convoluted and wooly some of my own understanding and explanations of pin-up grrrls have been in the past, and very briefly give some clarifications and further observations on those before presenting the chronology. Not because they’re the final word by any means, but more because, hopefully, they’re good things to bear in mind as you consider the events of the past few months:


• Being a sex object doesn’t necessarily preclude one from also being a sexual subject. They are not mutually exclusive.

• However, expressions of sexual subjectivity remain a big taboo in Korea. Or in other words, we can have a 25 year-old’s S-line quite literally highlighted for a heterosexual male gaze, but heaven forbid she admit to having sexual feelings and experience herself. Certainly, this does apply to male celebrities too, but I’d argue to a much lesser extent. In turn, while this double-standard is present in other countries, it’s not difficult to think of female celebrities that thrive on challenging such taboos, whereas admissions like Lee Hyori’s seem to be few and far between among their Korean counterparts (although I’d be very happy to be proven wrong).

• While pictures (etc.) of sexually-attractive women are often framed as being exclusively for a heterosexual male gaze, there is overwhelming evidence (see Maria Buszek’s Pin-Up Grrrls, or this shorter essay) that heterosexual women can be just as if not more interested in them, finding the women — rightly or wrongly — to be confident, sexy role models. A good case in point is Girls’ Generation, who surprised many (including myself) with their huge female fan base in Japan, and who in hindsight may have many more female fans in Korea than is reported too. If that does turn out to be the case, then why the media stresses girl-groups’ “ajosshi” or “samcheon” fandom instead is an interesting topic for further investigation, and I’d speculate that it’s a side-effect of entertainment companies’ prerogative to frame that fandom as platonic (source, right).

• Nobody deserves criticism for financially benefiting from their sexual attractiveness. It is basic human nature, and applies equally whether one is a public or private figure. Moreover, while I can certainly respect those ballsy celebrities who are honest about doing so, nobody ever needs my approval for what they wear, and can give any reason they like — or indeed no reason — for their choices.

• Having said that, using self-sexualization to advance a cause is a double-edged sword, and can easily end up more distracting the intended audience than anything else. Which sounds facetious; but as we’ll see, Bikini Girl proves to be a good case in point.

• Nevertheless, it is hypocritical to criticize politically-motivated sexualization without also criticizing commercially-motivated sexualization, and betrays a political agenda. Indeed, given the pervasiveness of the latter, using skin to get attention is an obvious tool, so it’s strange that we don’t see people stripping for a cause more often in Korea.

Finally, the chronology. Sorry that the Bikini Girl protest is actually the only one that I cover in it, albeit interspersed with all the “~녀” incidents, but another purpose in all the coming translations is getting on top of all the (far less well-documented) other ones, and I’ll either update this chronology or produce a new separate one once I do:

December 26:

— Chung Bong-ju jailed (Korea Realtime)

January 20:

— “Bikini Girl” posts photo, which gains much wider public attention over the next week (DKBNews; translation via Korea Bang)

January 21, 27:

Naneun Ggomsudua podcasters Kim Young-min and Choo Chin-woo (주진우) encourage (and receive) more bikini photos (Korea Times)

January 28:

The Crucible/Dogani (도기나) author Gong Ji-young (공지영) demands apology and calls for the hosts to retract those statements (Korea Times):

“I’ve written a novel to call for heavier punishments for child molesters in the Republic of Korea, which is a world of male chauvinism. This is a country where those sexually assaulting a female schoolmate are released with suspended jail terms because they were drunk, the girl was insufficiently dressed, or she was deemed a slut. This is a country where 70 percent of men have bought sex, so it is natural that people’s perspective on women’s bodies is political,” she said.

— See the Korea Herald (here and here) and Modern Korean Literature in Translation for a discussion of this reaction. In the latter, author Charles Montgomery argues that “immediately [going] to ‘child molestation’ and ‘assault’ in her argument against what is essentially a bikini shot” is too much of a jump, and that with her blanket statement of opposition to them, “Gong is doing a different version of what the GNP has tried to do to her – shutting down a clever method of getting publicity.”

February 1 (source, right):

— “Nude Male Campaign Appears After Bikini Girl Protest Criticized” (Daum; translation via Korea Bang):

Nude male photos in support of the imprisoned ex-MP Jung Bong-ju from the campaigning group ‘Jung Bong-ju and Future Power’ appeared on the web today. This was in response to accusations against the bikini protest as female sexual harassment.

Choi Young-min, a professional photographer who worked closely with the ex-MP was equally famous among his followers.

Painting the message ‘I’m dead serious’ and ‘Give back my model’ on his body was to remind the viewer of his support for the ex-MP.

In his interview with Money Today, Choi argued that “the female bikini campaign to publicize Jung’s case was seen as trivializing the campaign by ‘using’ the female body. I wanted to counter those criticisms by using male nudity.”

February 5:

Naneun Ggomsudua podcasters refuse to apologize,  head host Kim Ou-joon (김어준) arguing “that their comments were not sexual harassment, nor were they intended to be” (Korea Times):

Kim said that in order for the comments to be sexually harassing, inequality of power must exist.

“The woman who uploaded the picture must feel like she would be disadvantaged if she said she was sexually humiliated. However, the woman did not feel that way and we don’t have the power to suppress her from saying it. Therefore, sexual harassment did not take place,” he said.

Kim made it clear that they would not retract or regret the comments. “The right to express a political opinion using one’s body should be recognized,” he said.

— But note that The Korea Joongang Daily provides a slightly different, more positive translation of the above (surprisingly, considering it is a conservative newspaper):

“We didn’t have any intention of sexual harassment and she [the female protestor in bikini] didn’t feel in that way,” Kim said. “She has the right to express political issues and her rights should be respected. No one can limit that right because he or she feels uncomfortable.

“It’s true that I was impressed by the biological perfection [of the woman] at first, but at the same time, I was also impressed as a political comrade by this new kind of protest,” Kim said.

— See Korea Law Today for an analysis, where author Nathan McMurray (quite presciently) noted:

I know the whole modus operandi of the creeps is to be irreverent and provocative. But irreverence is only useful when it furthers, rather than hinders, the show’s goals. I am curious if these recent events will have any impact on the upcoming presidential election, where the conservative candidate will likely be a woman (Park Kun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who I briefly mentioned here). Plus, this stuff is just not funny. If you insist on “working blue,” please make me laugh.

— Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, at best the controversy created distracted people from more important issues, whereas at worst it presaged deep divisions in the Left’s support for them, well before years-old misogynistic comments of one of them, Kim Yong-min (김용민) emerged in April.


— On the other hand, it’s important not to judge Kim Ou-joon’s above defense in light of those comments either, or the efficacy of Bikini Girl’s and other protests. That would just be an ad-hominem attack and guilt by association respectively.

February 6:

— Three “of the nation’s liberal online communities – Ssanghwa Tea Cocoa, Souldresser, and Hwajangbal – issued a joint statement on Monday evening that they were disappointed by the reckless remarks of the liberal hosts regarding women (Korea Joongang Daily; see the full [Korean] statement here):

“Their remark related to nosebleeds means they see women with typical male-centric views, considering women as mere tools for sexual entertainment to cheer up men’s political activities,” the joint statement said. “They also fueled controversies once again saying ‘impressed by biological perfection,’ implying that its natural to view women as sexual objects.”

“The show’s hosts should realize their show is no longer a B-level alternative broadcast and has grown into a political representative if they want to become real liberals,” the statement said.

The Web site for Chung’s fan club, called Chung Bong-ju and Future Powers, was filled with posts criticizing the joint statement…

March 1

— “Swearing Woman” slapping man on Seoul subway video goes viral (Korea Bang)

March 9:

— “Hot Soup Lady” proves not to be at fault (Korea Bang).

March 19:

— “And then there was Bundang Line Smoking Girl” (The Marmot’s Hole). See especially this, this, and this commentary on that, linked to earlier, and especially this prescient one from 2010 made at Scribblings of the Metropolitician (via Gusts of Popular Feeling):

I’ve also noticed the trend of collective, public humiliation of Korean Girls Behaving Badly. That’s not to say that the women involved are innocent or that men are let off scot-free. But you definitely don’t see the same reaction when Korean men “act out of line.” There might be public criticism, to be sure, but nothing like the witch-hunts and publicity we’ve seen in the case of women….

March 21:

 — New subway swearing “Cigarette Lady” video goes viral (Korea Bang)

March 27:

— “Beer Girl” smokes on subway, pours beer on pensioner (Korea Bang)

March 30:

— “Soju Girl” debuts, same girl as “Beer Girl”? (Korea Bang)

April 6:

— Kim Yong-min, by this stage a candidate for the main opposition Democratic United Party candidate in the northern Seoul constituency of Nowon-A, was revealed to have made vulgar and misogynistic comments when he appeared on an Internet broadcast in 2004 and 2005 (The Korea Herald):

Some of his recently revealed remarks include: “If all escalators and elevators at the City Hall metro station are dismantled, (conservative) old men and women will not be able to gather around the City Hall to hold demonstrations” and “If we take all U.S. soldiers in Korea hostage and run an armored vehicle over them one by one, Bush cannot help but step down”; and “Let’s release (serial killer) Yu Yeong-cheol and rape and kill (Condoleezza) Rice and kill Rumsfeld and Bush.

The ruling Saenuri Party, women’s rights groups and even liberal figures have piled pressure on the DUP leadership to withdraw his candidacy…

— As readers will be well aware, the DUP decided to keep him, and indeed his popularity before news of these comments emerged should not be underestimated. But with the benefit of hindsight however, this decision is widely considered to have cost the DUP the election (The Korea Herald; see this [small] poll at Korea Law Today also):

…The opposition party should have withdrawn his nomination for damage control, but it did not.

The failure to act decisively against the podcaster turned moderates and swing voters against the opposition party, undoubtedly making it possible for the ruling party to win in many closely contested districts.

If it had not been for the podcaster’s nomination, the main opposition party could have won a majority of electoral districts, if not alone, in alliance with the small United Progressive Party. Instead, the DUP won 127 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, and the United Progressive Party took 13. On the other hand, the ruling Saenuri won 152 under the leadership of Rep. Park Geun-hye.

April 9:

— “Girl in bikini uses pussy to encourage voters” (Korea Bang)

April 18:

—  “Bus Girl” demands driver apologize on knees” (Korea Bang; also source, right):

As the photo went viral, other articles surfaced explaining the what presumably really happened. One such article stated that with passengers getting frustrated and the driver showing insincerity towards the situation, he was asked to get down on his knees. Another blog post claims that as the bus finally arrived at the bus terminal, the ground staff showed indifference to the passengers’ inconvenience, to which they suggested the staff get down on their knees. Refusing, the bus driver did instead. The latest “Ladygate” incident shows how just one photo can be subject to open interpretation, and how netizen opinions in Korea, no matter how far-fetched and ridiculous they may seem, are not taken lightly by news outlets – having the power to change entire news stories or even make new ones.

April 27:

— “Woman Crushes High School Girl Between Two Cars, Does Nothing” (Daum; translation via Korea Bang). The blog post translates (generally) disparaging comments from Daum of the stereotypical female driver described below, echoed by (English-speaking) commenters on the post itself:

Note: Mrs. Kim is a name frequently given to women drivers who hog the road and don’t know how to drive. perceived as a rich house wife who does nothing. Kind of like a trophy wife (but not necessarily pretty). The driver in the video is most likely NOT actually named Mrs. Kim.

— “Poo Girl” does poo on Seoul metro, netizens forgiving (Korea Bang). As The Korea Times explains:

The “poo-poo girl on the subway” incident, which created the latest online buzz, was later found that the woman was mentally unstable.

This case and several others showed Internet users are sometimes quick to harshly criticize and make comments about a situation without learning the exact details or hearing the full story….

Accordingly, the comments selected by the Korea Times do give the impression that the “~녀” meme may well be at an end. But if so, then I think something similar will soon take its place.

In the meantime, apologies for the long wait on this post, and expect the first of those translations next week soon (possibly with a Korean Gender Reader in between)!

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

The Korean Ad Industry’s Celebrity Obsession

(Sources: left, right)

See Busan Haps for the full article. It was prompted by Yoo In-na (유인나) and then Kim Sa-rang (김사랑; left) endorsing Gillette razors last year, when suddenly a lot of celebrities seemed to be endorsing products not normally associated with their sex.

Granted, women have been used to sell things to men for as long as advertisements have existed. And as for using Hyun Bin (현빈; right) to advertise a tea-drink that supposedly gives you a “V-line”, that’s just common sense: not only will he appeal to women, but so too might some men be encouraged to think about their own, hitherto exclusively feminine V-lines, thereby creating a whole new market.

But still: I’d wager that there has indeed been a great deal of gender-bending in the Korean advertising industry in the last couple of years. For instance, I’ve definitely never heard of a guy advertising bras before, no matter how dishy I’m assured this one (So Ji-sub; 소지섭) happens to be:


Was he chosen just because he’s a pretty face? Or was the reasoning much more subtle than that? I can’t say in this case. But I do know that celebrities have a much greater effect on our consumption choices than we all like to think. Please read the article for more on how and why…

For some hints, here is the interview with Fame Junkies author Jake Halpern that I refer to in it. If for some reason that the video below doesn’t immediately take you to it though (it’s at 34:30), then please click here instead:

Finally, if you’ve read this far, then I heartily recommend watching Starsuckers in its entirety. For me, it was especially what the narrator says at 45:45 that sold me on it, and which I encourage you all to refer to the next time someone accuses you of reading too much into anything you see in the media:

p.s. Sorry for sounding so mercenary, but please let me remind everyone that any donations for my writing, however small, are very much appreciated. Unfortunately though, I haven’t actually received any since January 21(!), and I don’t get paid for my Busan Haps articles!^^

Should the Sexualization of Teens in K-Pop be Banned?

(15 year-old f(x) band member Sulli {최설리} in February 2010 Oh! Boy Magazine; source)

In short, “yes, but…”(!), as I explain in this opinion piece I recently penned for the Korea Herald. It’s pretty faithful to the original, for which I’m grateful, but unfortunately two crucial sentences on boy-bands got edited out at the beginning of paragraph 4. It should read:

This is why this discussion is overwhelmingly about girls. However, owners of boy-bands too have been affected by the ensuing pressure to make them stand out from their competitors. Add in Korea’s notoriously high levels of illegal downloading, ensuring that profits in the Korean music industry are overwhelmingly from concerts and commercial endorsements (and which explains why 75% of Korean commercials feature celebrities), then courting controversy with ever more provocative performances is a no-brainer really.

Still, only 800 words long even with those inserted, at best the article only gives an introduction to some of the issues involved really. For any interested new readers and old readers that haven’t already then, please read my post Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 2: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image for a much more comprehensive discussion of those, and for the many caveats I would have liked to have added to the generalizations in the article!^^

Sprechen sie Deutsch?


If so, then let me direct you to an interview I gave last week for Deutschlandradio, on the economic factors behind the sexualization of minors in K-pop (I’m on at about 3:05).

Meanwhile, English speakers never fear(!), for I should have a newspaper article on the same subject coming out either this week or the next. And Part 2 of my translation of the “What did Depraved Oppas do to Girls’ Generation” article will be up tomorrow.

Update – With special thanks to Curtis for translating it, here is the short article that accompanied the radio report:

Economic Factors: Girlbands

Report by Malte Kollenberg and Fabian Kretschmer

(Girl- and boybands are an important part of the economy in South Korea. Source: plynoi)

South Korean boy- and girlbands are also internationally successful. A general music- and dance-style concept is created and from this concept a look is agreed upon.  To acheive this look, the young band members go under the knife ever more frequently.

Pop music in South Korea is a major economic factor for the country.  In 2009 the industry earned 30 million dollars, and according to government statistics, this number doubled in 2010.  The most important market is the country itself, but Japan and the USA are also markets of interest.  Korea’s largest record label, S.M. Entertainment, currently tours around the world with different bands in a Global-Audition-Tour.

Lavish Choreography

Girl- and boybands who present lavish choreography in large shows are typical for K-Pop – for example, the 13-member boyband Super Junior and Wondergirls.  As is usual in the international music market, the bands are cast, and the musical style and looks of the artists are decided by the record label.  Plastic surgery is generally accepted by South Korean society and is a standard in K-pop.  From this arise greatly deliberated and perfectly coordinated images.


Korean Sociological Image #55: School Uniform Advertisements


Has anyone been paying close attention to teenage girls’ legs recently?

If so, then please answer a question for me, as they’re the darnedest things to find once you actually have a legitimate reason to look: until their recent break, had female school students still been required to wear skirts this winter, while their male classmates got to wear pants? Or did Korean schools show some flexibility because of the unusually cold weather?

Mostly I ask because as my eldest daughter approaches school age, it’s just one of many things to consider as my wife and I decide whether to send our daughters to a Korean school, to homeschool them, or—in our dreams—to send them to an expensive international school. But whatever we ultimately decide, it’s interesting to compare attitudes towards uniforms in the U.K. for instance, where most schools have in practice allowed girls to wear pants for a long time now. On the other hand, they’ve only legally been required to do so as recently as last year, and only then because it was judged to violate the rights of transsexual students.

Which is not to imply that those are unimportant of course. But still, it was surprising that it wasn’t arguments about sexual equality and student’s health that had more impact on legislators:

(Guardian Weekly, July 11-17 2002)

The other reason for my interest is because of what they can represent. First, to the students themselves, many of whom consider them symbols of every hardship and injustice they had to endure at school, which is why they’re going to be ripping them off in public and/or slashing them with scissors upon their graduations next week. And who can blame them?

Next, to someone more interested in gender issues and social trends, they could be seen as something that both physically prepares girls for and/or socializes them into wearing skirts simply for the sake of being fashionable later. But considering that young U.S. women for instance, who don’t wear uniforms at school, still freeze to death outside nightclubs every winter just as readily as their U.K. and Korean counterparts, then that may be making too much of it.

I’m on much firmer ground though, when I say that school uniform advertisements at least, epitomize how Korean girls are socialized to be notoriously obsessive about their appearance:

(Source: unknown)

To be precise, it’s the fact that such advertisements exist at all. For unlike in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand where I went to school, and where parents buy—and can only buy—their children’s school uniforms directly from their schools, in Korea there has actually been a free market for them since 1983. Or in other words, for any specific school there’s a range of companies competing to sell their brand of its uniforms to students, complete with their own individual stores and with sometimes marked differences in quality and price.

One obvious problem with this is that it completely works against one of the major purposes of having a school uniform in the first place, which is to minimize the visible differences between wealthy and poor students.

Another is that school uniform advertisers naturally use the same methods as clothes companies do for most any kind of clothes: buy their brand, and you will be successful both among your peers and with the opposite sex.

(Sources: left, right)

Granted, that latter hardly sounds heinous. And just like everywhere else, many Korean girls will make their uniforms as revealing as possible if they’re too conservative for their liking. Moreover, in this excellent quick guide to the school uniform industry at An Acorn in the Dog’s Food here, Paul Bailey argued in January 2009:

Another thing I noticed from the English-language sites reporting on [this] is that they all feature an advertisement of celebrities promoting a particular line of school uniforms, and this ad always features a girl group. Looking through the first few pages of image results on Naver, it looks like there might actually be more advertisements featuring boy bands — but I guess a group like the Wonder Girls or Girls’ Generation is more recognizable to the average reader. In his write-up, James mentions that it was only by accident that he learned how students buy their uniforms through these retailers instead of through their school. Never having worn a school uniform, that was also my assumption before arriving in Korea, but upon exploring my neighborhood I turned up three school uniform vendors – Ivy Club, Smart and Skoolooks – located within four blocks of my apartment. Between those vendors, one featured posters of only boy bands and the other two advertise with both male and female celebrity models. Interesting, then, to see what images have been used online.

And I’ve no reason to disagree with any of his observations. But with the benefit of hindsight from several years of writing and lecturing about advertisements since, I’ve noticed that the majority of ads featuring boy-bands from back then clearly seemed to be aimed at girls rather than boys, as in the large pink example with boy-band Shinee and an unidentified female model above. Which again, is only natural…but then the ones featuring girl groups seemed to be aimed at girls too.

Take these recent ones with girl-group f(x) for example, in which the group members are almost always the most prominent models in them, even though the ad technically is also selling boys’ uniforms (update: this ad is a good comparison):


Sure, in Korea’s overwhelmingly celebrity-driven advertising culture, then of course they’re going to be the most prominent things in the ads. And I also concede that some of the ads in this post are among the most blatant, deliberately chosen to make a point. But whether the models in a uniform ad are exclusively male, exclusively female, or a mix of both, there seems to be a noticeable lack of comparable ads featuring boys getting the approving looks of female admirers. And which, when you think about it, is just plain bizarre really.

As long term readers will recall though, the practice of celebrities endorsing uniforms was actually banned by the Ministry of Educational Science and Technology (MEST) 2 years ago (see #7 here), and indeed I mentioned that a rare positive step in my recent lecture in Boston. I was very surprised and embarrassed then, to find that they’d started again almost literally the day I got back, which is what ultimately prompted this post. As it turns out, not only were they actually not banned at all, school uniform companies merely being asked to stop in order to decrease the burden on consumers during the economic crisis, but my hope that someone within MEST thinking that middle-school girls had better things than their S-lines to worry about now seems particularly naive.

And on that note, let me leave you with the facts on the original decision to temporarily cease star endorsements back in 2009, courtesy of Marilyn:

(Sources: left, right)

교복 광고 속 아이돌 스타들, 이제 “교복을 벗고”

Idols stars in school uniform ads, now “take off the uniform”

새 학기가 시작되면서 강력한 호황을 누리는 의류업계가 있다. 바로 교복업계다. 마치 경쟁이라도 하듯 인기 아이돌 가수들을 광고 모델로 쓰며 학생 소비자들의 시선을 잡아 끄는 교복 광고는 그 동안 10대 팬들에겐 ‘오빠, 누나’의 브로마이드를 한 장이라도 더 받을 수 있는 통로였으며, 스타들에겐 아이돌의 이미지를 더욱 견고하게 할 수 있는 ‘꿈의 CF’였다.

As a new semester begins, there is a clothing industry that is thriving powerfully – the school uniform industry.  As school uniform ads, which, as if they were competing, grab and lead the attention of student consumers while using popular idol singers as advertising models, have been a way for teenage fans to get even one more poster of their ‘oppa, noona’, to stars they have been “dream TV commercials” that could make an idol’s image even more solid.

그러나 최근 들어 TV 광고에서 교복을 입은 아이돌 스타들의 모습을 보기가 힘들어졌다. 어느 채널을 돌려도 이젠 긴 다리로 뛰어 다니며 십대답지 않은 ‘교복 간지’를 뿜어내는 아이돌들을 찾기는 힘들다.

However, it has recently become rare to see an idol star wearing a school uniform in TV commercials.  No matter which channel you turn to, it is difficult to find an idol running around on their long legs while exuding ‘school uniform chic’ that is unlike a teenager.


바로 지난 달 1일 교육과학기술부(이하 교과부)와 교복 업체들 간에 이뤄진 간담회 결과, 교복 업체들은 ‘가격 인하 노력 전개’, ‘디자인 변경 자제’, ‘사회공헌 활동 강화’ 등과 더불어 ‘유명 연예인을 동원한 과도한 광고 및 판촉 활동 자제’의 지침을 지킬 것을 요구 받았기 때문이다.

It is because on the first of last month [Feb. ’09], the result of the discussion between the Ministry of Educational Science and Technology (MEST) and school uniform companies was that the uniform companies were asked to follow the guidelines of ‘a price reduction effort campaign’, ‘abstention from design change’, ‘strengthening of social contribution activities’, etc., along with ‘abstention from advertisements and promotional activities that excessively employ famous entertainers.’

이에 교복업체들은 현재 자율적인 협의를 거치고 향후 ‘스타 모델 기용’을 더 이상 지속하지 않기로 결정한 상황이다. 그렇다면 교과부가 ‘스타 모델 기용’을 반대하는 권고안을 내놓은 이유는 무엇이며, 이러한 권고를 수용한 교복업체들의 ‘스타 모델’에 대한 생각은 무엇일까? 또한 이번 교복업계의 결정에 따라 아이돌 스타들의 전유물로 여겨졌던 교복 광고 시장은 어떻게 변하게 되는 것일까?

Following that, school uniform companies recently underwent an autonomous discussion and decided that, from now, ‘star model employment’ will no longer continue.  So, what is the reason that the MEST put forth a recommendation that opposes ‘star model employment’, and what might school uniform companies who accept this recommendation think about ‘star models’?  Also, how might the school uniform advertising market, once considered monopolized by idol stars, change according to this decision by the school uniform industry? (Source, right)

교과부 “빅 모델이 교복값 부추긴다.” VS. 교복업계 “1000원 미만 정도”

MEST: “Famous models drive up school uniform prices” vs. school uniform industry: “Less than 1,000 or so”

교과부를 비롯해 다수의 고객들이 교복 빅 모델 사용을 반대하는 결정적인 이유는 하나다. 스타 모델 기용으로 인해 발생하게 되는 개런티가 교복값에 그대로 반영돼 교복값 상승을 더욱 부추긴다는 것. 그러나 이러한 일반적인 생각에 대해 교복업체들은 하나같이 ‘No’라고 대답하고 있다.

There is one deciding reason that the MEST and a majority of customers oppose the use of famous models for school uniforms: a star model’s fee is directly reflected in the price of school uniforms so it contributes to their further rise. However, school uniform companies, together as one, have answered “no” to this common thought.

최근 매일경제 스타투데이와의 전화 통화에서 업계관계자들이 주장한 ‘스타모델로 인해 추가되는 교복값’은 한 벌당 300원에서 1000원 정도. 그러나 현재 국내에는 제품원가와 관련해 심의를 담당하는 기관이 없기 때문에 그 정확한 비용적 수치를 알기는 어렵다.

Recently, in a phone call with Maeil Kyungjae Star Today, industry sources claimed that the ‘school uniform price additions caused by star models’ are about ₩300 to ₩1,000 per uniform.  However, because there are currently no domestic organizations responsible for the review of the production costs of goods, it is difficult to know the exact figure.

업계 관계자들은 “다른 의류업체들이 스타들을 모델로 기용하는 것과 다를 것이 없고 또 실제로 스타 모델이 교복 가격에 미치는 영향도 미미하다”면서 “오히려 교복 가격을 1000원 정도 깎아주고 빅 모델들을 계속 쓰는 게 우리에게는 더 효과적”이라고 말한다. 브랜드 이미지를 강화하기 위해 스타 모델들을 쓰는 것 보다 더 좋은 방법을 찾기 힘들기 때문이다.

Industry sources said, “It is no different from other clothing industries using stars as models and also, actually, the influence caused by star models on school uniform prices is slight” and, “Instead, it’s more effective for us to discount the school uniform price by ₩1,000 and continue to use famous models.”  This is because it is difficult to find a better way to strengthen a brand image than using star models.


교복의 독과점 특성 상 빅 모델은 신생업체의 중요 진입 통로

Because of monopolies in the school uniform industry, using famous models is an important way of entry for new companies

그러나 스타모델에 대한 보다 구체적인 효과와 관련해선 교복업체들마다 조금 다른 의견을 보이고 있는 것도 사실이다.

It is also true, however, that each school uniform company expresses slightly different opinions concerning the more specific effects of star models.

1995년 송혜교를 시작으로 자사 광고에 스타들을 모델로 기용한 스마트는 “회사 내부적으로 빅 모델들 때문에 특별히 큰 효과를 본다고 생각지는 않는다”는 입장을 가지고 있다. 스마트 마케팅팀의 손정주 대리는 “스타 모델 사용의 목적은 직접적인 수익 창출이라기 보다 우리 브랜드의 이미지 형성을 위한 것”이라며 “또 워낙 스타 모델들을 쓰는 것이 일반화된 교복 광고계에서 타 경쟁 브랜드와의 차별성을 두고 스타와 브랜드 간의 연상작용을 위해 하는 측면이 크다”고 말했다. 예를 들어 샤이니를 보면 스마트를 연상케 하는 이미지적 과정을 중요한 마케팅 수단의 하나로 보는 것이다.

Smart, which started using stars as models in its advertisements with Song Hye-kyo in 1995, believes that, “Within our company, we don’t believe that we see especially big results because of famous models.”  Smart marketing deputy section chief Sohn Jeong-joo said, “The goal of using star models, more than the direct creation of profit, is the development of our brand,” and added, “Also, using star models in a school uniform advertisement differentiates us from competitor brands, and the aspect of doing it for the association between the star and the brand is considerable.”  For example, the visual process of being reminded of Smart when one sees Shinee is seen as an important marketing tool.


하지만 업계에 처음으로 발을 디디는 신생업체의 생각은 다르다. 교복업계에 진입한 지 4년여 만에 메이저 기업으로 성장한 스쿨룩스 측은 “사용하지 않는 것 보다는 훨씬 낫다”는 입장이다. 스쿨룩스의 한 관계자는 “물론 빅 모델 기용 이외에 다양한 영업, 마케팅 기법들이 혼합되면서 수익이 창출되는 것이므로 스타 모델이 수익적 성과를 결정한다고 단정지을 수는 없다”면서도 “브랜드 인지도를 높이는데 효과적인 것만큼은 사실이다”라는 의견을 밝혔다.

However, the opinion of a new business first entering in the industry is different.  The position of School Looks, which has grown into a major business in the four years since it entered the school uniform industry, is that, “It’s a lot better than not using them.”  A source from School Looks said, “Of course, because in addition to using famous models, diverse sales and marketing techniques are blended while creating profit, we can’t conclude that star models determine our revenue results,” but, “it’s a fact that it raises brand awareness enough to be effective.”

스쿨룩스는 업계에 처음 진입할 때부터 장근석, 유아인 등의 아이돌 스타들을 광고 모델로 썼고, 2007년부터 현재까지 빅뱅을 전속 모델로 쓰고 있다. 이와 관련해 스쿨룩스의 관계자는 “특히 빅뱅의 경우 대중들에게 잘 알려지지 않았던 데뷔 시절부터 써왔는데, 브랜드 이미지를 강화하려는 교복 광고주와 대중들에게 얼굴을 알려야 하는 아이돌들에게 교복 광고는 특히나 효과가 큰 윈윈전략의 하나로 통한다”고 말했다.

Since it entered the industry, School Looks has used idol stars like Jang Geun-seok and Yoo Ah-in as advertising models, and from 2007 to the present they have had the exclusive use of Big Bang as models.  A School Looks source involved with this said, “Especially in Big Bang’s case, we’ve used them as models since their debut when they weren’t well-known to the public; a school uniform ad is known as an especially effective win-win tactic for a school uniform advertiser that wants to strengthen its brand image and idols who need to make their faces known.”


교복업체들 “국민정서 따르겠다.”

School uniforms companies “will conform to public sentiment”

그러나 결과적으로 교복 광고의 빅 모델들에 대한 국민 정서가 좋지 않고, 나라 경제가 전체적으로 악화되고 있는 상황에서 교복업체들은 교과부의 권고를 수용하고 스타 모델을 더 이상 쓰지 않는 방향으로 가닥을 잡을 예정이다. 실제로 지상파 교복 광고도 지난 달 들어 모두 중단됐으며 팬 사인회 등의 프로모션도 현재 끊겨있는 상태다.

However, in the end public opinion about famous models in school uniform ads is not good, and in a situation in which the country’s economy is worsening on the whole, school uniform companies plan to accommodate the MEST’s recommendation and move in the direction of no longer using star models.  School uniform ads have actually ceased since last month, and promotions such as autograph signing parties are currently suspended.

그렇다면 학생들을 소비 계층으로 하는 교복의 특성상 아이돌 스타들이 광고료를 대폭 낮추고 광고를 찍을 수는 없을까? 이와 관련해 소속사들 측은 “아이돌의 이미지 상 교복광고를 긍정적으로 볼 수도 있겠지만, 결과적으로 수익을 창출해내는 한 기업의 광고라는 점에서 가격붕괴를 시키면 다른 광고에서 분명히 문제가 발생할 것”이라는 의견이다. 따라서 추후 광고 방법에 관련된 구체적인 논의는 업체별로 계속될 것으로 보인다.


So, because students are the main consumers of school uniforms can’t idol stars sharply lower their fees and shoot the commercials?  About this, star management agencies’ opinion is, “We might have a positive view of school uniform ads as far as the idol’s image goes, but in the end, if we drop our advertising appearance fees for one business that needs to make a profit, there will obviously be a problem with other advertisements.”  Thus, in the future we will continue to see detailed discussion in each company about advertisement methods.

이렇게 브랜드 교복 업체들의 주장대로 교복 한 벌에 들어가는 비용이 ‘단 몇 천원’에 불과하다 하더라도 몇 억대에 이르는 광고 모델료와 지상파 광고를 위해 지출되는 10억대에 이르는 거품이 사라질 수 있다면 서민들의 부담을 조금이라도 덜어줄 수 있다는 것만큼은 확실한 것이 아닐까? 교복광고와 관련된 권고안이 실행된 지 한 달 남짓, 시장의 자유 경쟁을 저해하고 교복 광고에만 유난히 날카로운 잣대를 들이댄다는 일부의 불평 속에서 사라질 스타 모델 교복 광고가 광고 시장과 교복 시장에 어떤 바람을 불러 일으킬 지는 더욱 두고 볼 일이다.

Even if the added cost to one uniform is ‘only a few thousand Won,’ as brand school uniform companies claim, if the advertisement model fees that reach a few hundred million and the extra billion spent on TV advertisements disappeared, isn’t it certain that would be enough to lift, in however small a way, the burden on ordinary people?  Star model school uniform advertisements will disappear as a result of complaints like facing the hindrance of free market competition and especially strict standards just for school uniform advertisements.  At over one month since the recommendations were carried out, it even more remains to be seen how this will affect the advertising market and school uniform market (end).


So, it looks like celebrity endorsements will continue. Do you think they have an influence on what we wear later in life? Was, or is, cost ever an issue to you or your parents? Alas, not having worn one since 1993, then I’ve had a lot of catching up to while writing this article, and so would really appreciate any more recent information!^^

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