Less Than 3% of Korean Women Use the Pill. Perhaps These New Commercials That Treat Them Like Adults Might Change That.

Spot the Korean condom! Photo by Min An from Pexels. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

Korea has only ever had three condom commercials on TV since a ban was lifted in 2006, and none at all for the last six years. Korean women generally rely on men to purchase and use condoms too, and less than 3% use the monthly contraceptive pill, despite rare over-the-counter access. Women’s access to the prescription-only morning-after pill is very much only in name also.

In the midst of this, last year saw an awesome, much-needed commercial for Common Day condoms produced for social media, which focused on how empowering they are for women. Tellingly however, the notion that women could buy condoms triggered a backlash. Nor did the small company ever actually feature its condoms on its site either, although they are available to buy from online shopping malls.

You’ll appreciate then, why this recent fourth sighting of a condom on Korean screens was so important. And the hints its presence gives about the novel approach of the Senseday contraceptive pill commercial in which it can be found:

Released on June 19, a spokesperson for Yuhan (which produces the Senseday pill) said about the appearance of the condom:

…“피임은 남녀가 함께 하는 것임에도 콘돔 광고는 전무하고, 피임약 광고도 여성들에게만 피임을 권장하는 식으로 흘러가는 것이 아쉬웠다”며 “둘이 함께 책임지는 성숙한 피임 문화에 대해 화두를 던지고 싶었다”고 전했다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

…[R]egardless of whether it’s men or women using the contraceptives, it is lamentable that there is no condom advertising at all, and that contraceptive pill advertising stresses only women’s responsibility for contraception. With this commercial, we want to raise the notion that contraception is the responsibility of both partners, and encourage the development of a more mature contraceptive culture.

Journalist Kim Jeong-min at the JoongAng Ilbo notes it follows a pill commercial released in March by Mercilon (produced in Korea by Alvogen Korea), which too is a breakaway from the cutesy pill commercials of the past:

비슷한 시기에 공개된 두 광고는 과거의 피임약 광고와는 여러모로 달라 화제를 모으고 있다. ‘어떤 내가 되고 싶은지’ 고민하는 주체적 여성상을 내세운 점, 피임약 광고 최초로 남성용 피임 도구인 콘돔이 등장한 점 등에서다. 기존 피임약 광고가 수줍은 20대 여성의 이미지를 강조(2013년 머시론 광고 ‘스무살의 서툰 사랑’ 등)하거나 피임을 여성의 몫으로 표현한 것과는 다른 문법이다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

Both commercials…are gaining attention for being very different from the contraceptive pill advertisements of the past. [Mercilon’s] cry of “Whatever I want to be” stressing women asserting themselves and being independent as they think about their future, combined with the first appearance of…condoms [in Senseday’s commercial], present very different messages to that of existing contraceptive pill commercials that feature shy, bashful 20-somethings (such as Mercilon’s “Clumsy 20’s Love” from 2013 below) and/or which perpetuate the notion that contraception is women’s sole responsibility. [James—Alas, generally Korean women believe it is actually men’s sole responsibility, as noted earlier.]

An inaccuracy: the first appearance of a condom on Korean TV was in 2013, not counting a pre-ban HIV/AIDs prevention campaign in 2004. But I share Kim Jeong-min’s optimism about the potential for a sea change in Korean contraceptive advertising. Both because Yuhan and Alvogen are competing more vigorously now, due to various changes made to their licensing agreements as Kim goes on to explain, and because she wasn’t kidding about how twee Korean contraceptive pill commercials used to be. As I noted as recently as 2016, if you didn’t know any better then it was entirely possible to watch them and assume that the pill was actually a medicine, and had nothing whatsoever to do with sex and pregnancy:

“…Korea remains one of the few developed countries where the monthly pill is over-the-counter. Which makes we wonder: in terms of attitudes towards and use of the pill, in what other ways does Korea stand out?

With that in mind, I was struck by the emphasis on appearance in the following recent commercial:

The voiceover says ‘My body? ‘A.’ My personality? ‘A.’ My style? ‘A.’ [The reason for?] my success? Alesse contraceptive pills,” followed by the text also mentioning it’s a good treatment for acne.

Should women with only “normal” bodies try something else then? What about those with only so-so fashion sense?

That can’t compare with the Koreanness of this next one though, with its mention of “bagel girls” and use of aegyo:

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title [in the original 2016 video was] “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company. Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

Which I’m sure is indeed empowering. Yet, watching these, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the pill is sometimes used to prevent pregnancy too.”

What do you think? How do they compare to contraceptive pill and condom commercials in your own countries? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

(TRANSLATION) On Blogging about Feminism in South Korea

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Photo by bruce mars from Pexels.

Many thanks to Menelik Lee (@LiMing6859), for all their hard work translating a long interview of me by Yiyi Zhang for Qdaily last year.

As you’ll see, unfortunately a lot of nuance is lost when going from English to Chinese to English again. The misunderstandings and factual mistakes multiply too, which crop up even when interviewers and interviewees share the same native language. Most are very, very minor though, which is a real testament to Menelik’s skills, so I’ve only corrected or clarified the most glaring ones [indicated in brackets]. Please pass on your rants or raves, or let me know if you’d like any further information about anything mentioned in the interview. Thanks!

An Englishman Who Writes a Feminist Blog in South Korea: Sex, Gender, and the Elephants in the Room.

Yiyi Zhang, Qdaily, 22/11/2018

Almost 20 years ago, Englishman James Turnbull was just starting his life in Korea. [W]hile traveling through the wild open countryside in his boss’s car [during one of his first jobs there], “I don’t know where it sprang from, but suddenly a hotel appeared in the middle of this vast emptiness.”

Just like every person that harbors a sense of wonderment for the culture of a foreign land, Turnbull immediately blurted out, “What’s that? [What tourist would come here, in the middle of nowhere?]” He learned from his boss that the establishment [actually] functioned like the much-fabled love hotels of Japan.

He soon discovered that in Korea such establishments are actually [common in rural areas, not just the cities]. These unassuming structures facilitate both the sex trade and the secret trysts of [lovers]. They have arisen because premarital sex is still heavily stigmatized in Korean society. However, unlike Japan, Korea’s “love hotels” lack neon signs and themed playrooms. If asked about such things the proprietors will simply evade the question.

“Everyone pretends they don’t exist, but you can tell they have a bad reputation. Anyway, it’s always been something that [just] shouldn’t be discussed.”

After having lived in Korea for 18 years, with a family and two kids of his own now, Turnbull looks back and realizes that the problems surrounding sex and gender in this culture are just like that little hotel in the wilderness. They’re arresting, painfully obvious, yet everyone turns a blind eye and carries on regardless.

In his 7th year in Korea, Turnbull launched The Grand Narrative, a blog sharing and analyzing Korea’s sex, gender and pop culture from the viewpoint of an English author.

Besides blogging, he also holds down a full-time job at Busan’s Dongseo University. He spends so much of his spare time and energy maintaining and updating his blog, it’s almost a kind of volunteer work at this point. Over time, his blog has gained the approval of the mainstream—[most recently, he was quoted for several stories for CNN in 2018]—and Turnbull became something of an authority on Korean feminism and pop culture in Western media. Occasionally, he has even been invited to give guest lectures at Seoul National University and other higher education institutions.

But most of the time he stays in his own wheelhouse, silently typing away under the glow of his computer monitor. Over the past 11 years, he has written hundreds of articles on topics ranging from sex and K-pop, to the politics of body image, from gender in advertising, to abortion and contraception. In the world beyond his writings, the transformations wrought by the Korean women’s rights movement have moved with breath-taking speed.

“This has been the product of the last decade or so of painstaking labor, maybe it’s time to talk about it a little.” Turnbull tells Qdaily.

The first [post] about women’s issues on The Grand Narrative was posted in 2007. [From his Korean female friends, Turnbull learned that when they] graduated and entered the job market the problems they ran into came thick and fast. One of the most prominent issues was the fact that as soon as they fell pregnant they were laid off.

“As soon as a woman has a child she is forced to leave work; after a year it’s basically impossible to go back. The hierarchy in Korean companies is very strict, those who have worked there the longest always have the final say and the most opportunities for advancement. When a Korean woman is married with kids, she simply can’t keep up professionally.” Turnbull also speaks about the low birth rate. Because all women have to face this decision, many women from this generation have decided to simply forego having children.

The BBC reports that because of this, Korea has developed a new social phenomenon: the Sampo Generation. “Sampo” means to abandon three things: relationships, marriage, and children.

Before graduating and coming to Korea, Turnbull [had already had some experience of fitting into] different cultures. Thanks to his parents, he moved from the UK to New Zealand, then to Australia, and from there back to the UK again. [In just three years], he attended six different secondary schools in three separate countries, “it was pretty crazy.”

One may say that the cultural differences between these three countries are small when compared to Korea, but they each have unique values and lifestyles. [When he was a teenager,] every time Turnbull questioned an [adult in New Zealand and Australia about some aspect of their countries, and even in the UK if they knew he’d lived overseas], the answer was always the same: “This is just the local culture.” This answer was rolled out like a panacea. No matter what the situation, no matter the problem, it could be used to explain it away. But when he seriously thought about it, he realized that adults were simply using this because they had nothing else to say. “I’d had enough,” he recalls.

So by the time he got to Korea, he simply couldn’t [let “culture” be used] to explain everything away. “It’s not [unlike] a fish in water, unable to sense the water. Some things are [genuinely unusual and noteworthy, only considered normal by people who’ve known nothing else].”

In his conversations, Turnbull found that many Koreans harbored a strong sense of nationalism [too], and so talking about the negative aspects of the country [with a foreigner met a lot of resistance]. However, this did not mean that they [themselves] were satisfied with everything that was going on.

“If there’s something in Korea that you don’t like, there’s a very good chance a lot of Koreans aren’t happy with it either.” And this is something the [English-language media often chooses not to cover]. Many debates [are to be found on the Korean internet and social media platforms], and the English-language media has trouble [relaying] these trends, so they [can give versions] of Korean sexual culture that are extremely superficial.

“When reporting on cultures outside of Asia, readers generally won’t afford you much credibility or value as a reference if you don’t understand the local language. But when it comes to Asia—China, Japan and Korea—the majority of the [Western experts or reporters] have a very limited understanding of the local languages and cultures, yet the audience is really forgiving—it’s a very strange double standard.”

Turnbull provides an example. In 2013, the South Korean Ministry for the Interior introduced “Pink Female Parking Spaces,” with extra room for the exclusive use of women. In no time, this news was plastered over mainstream media pages around the world. Almost all of them claimed that the policy demonstrated prejudice against female drivers because the spaces implied that the women wouldn’t be able to park properly without them.

“[To be more specific, one report quoted an anonymous source that claimed that the larger spaces were necessary for ‘unskilled women drivers.‘ However, ultimately that source appeared to have been made up.”] Turnbull says that, in actual fact, the spaces were created because the vast majority of child care duties are born by women, and the policy provided larger spaces for them to use prams when they go shopping—[as most of the Korean media accurately reported.]

“There’s obviously [still] a problem here: the idea that the role of primary carer is naturally filled by women. But it’s a completely separate issue to what the [overseas] media were saying. [Had overseas media outlets just taken a little more time to investigate, or, you know, spoken to someone who actually spoke Korean, then this ‘crazy Korea’ news story, which just plays to Orientalist stereotypes, would never have gotten off the ground.”]

Between the cracks of cultural misunderstanding, Turnbull saw his chance. Having been an English teacher for far too long, he was anxious to prove himself and open up further professional opportunities. As a result, when he first began writing about Korean culture, it soon transformed into writings about sex and feminism.

“Turnbull’s blog has continued to focus on female representation in Korean popular culture, including advertisements, soap operas, music videos, and more.” Source, right.

Turnbull’s blog was in its infancy ten years ago, but even just five to six years ago there was [almost] no one else doing the same thing. [“That doesn’t necessarily mean I was writing well, or that I was particularly knowledgeable—just that I was the only one writing about these specific topics. I’m quite serious when I say that, for a long time, I really was pretty much the only person on Earth writing about Korean feminism IN ENGLISH on the INTERNET.”] For the longest time, when opening Google’s search engine, Turnbull’s blog was the first thing listed under “Korea” and “feminism.”

According to Turnbull, he grew up in a very left-wing family, among piles of his father’s psychology and sociology textbooks. At university, he also spent his time on feminist research and sociology projects.

His foreign identity also opens the door for dialogue to some degree. “The reality is, if someone is truly interested in your culture, you’ll also be curious to find out where that interest comes from.”

Furthermore, in a Korean society that has always considered [open discussions of] sex to be taboo, Turnbull exists like a wanderer, beyond the normal customs and social networks of everyday Korean life. Thus, those around him [tend to be] happier to share their views on this topic [compared to how open they would be sharing them with a native Korean], disregarding his age and social position, they can trust him to be discrete. “It’s precisely because you’re a foreigner, people don’t have the same kinds of psychological barriers—they can pour their hearts out.”

This makes everything sound free and easy, but the reason he focused his gaze on women’s issues is because the urgency of the problems they still face simply cannot be overlooked.

“One day, a colleague rushed over to ask me a question: can abortions affect your health?” Upon further inquiry, he found out that this woman had had eight previous abortions, because she had never used—[and wasn’t even aware of]—any contraceptive methods. “I was totally shocked. To this very day, the lack of [adequate sex education in Korea] is astounding.”

Source: YouTube

As a non-academic, much of Turnbull’s understanding of social phenomena comes from his personal experience. His blog articles are written from the first-person perspective, but when compared to other news articles about the same events, he’s [often] much quicker than they are to cite authoritative sources.

From his perspective, feminism has never existed in isolation, and sex and gender issues are important because they are intimately connected to the everyday lives of all people.

Before becoming an English teacher at a university, Turnbull worked in a regular [Korean] company for almost two years. The hierarchical culture of humiliation in Korean workplaces really took him by surprise. “Every week our department head would make everyone stand up, and castigate each and every [employee] about every aspect of their work [regardless of how good it was]. On some level he had no choice, [because] angry or not, this was [just] how things were done.”

The sense of hierarchical oppression permeates most of everyday life, and in such a stratified society, standing up for oneself can make things even more difficult.

Despite himself, after coming to Korea, Turnbull says he can’t help pondering social stratification and rebellion. This is especially reflected around issues of sexual misconduct. “In Korea, if an older family member wants to hug you, you can’t refuse even if you want to. As a child or a young person, there are many people who can order you to do something even if you don’t like it.”

Once you’re a little older, this evolves into a power disparity between the sexes, “If a boy likes you, you just have to accept it, you can’t complain about it. Because of this, men don’t understand what constitutes “consent,” and women who reject others feel guilty.”

This attitude engenders deep seated emotional resentment, and Korean society is thus plagued by gendered violence and frequent sex crimes by spurned lovers. According to survey results released in 2017 by the Korean Institute of Criminology, 80% of males surveyed admitted to having previously abused a romantic partner.

“This is why I feel so surprised and proud that in the space of just a few years so many young women have come out to demonstrate. Because in Korea just doing that can be incredibly difficult.” He says that many demonstrators have to cover their faces, but the effects are deep and far reaching. Korea is undergoing a dramatic change towards gender equality and sexual minorities.

According to QZ, the watershed moment for the Korean women’s movement came in 2016. A woman was brutally murdered in a public bathhouse not far from the entrance to Gangnam Metro Station, one of Seoul’s busiest transport hubs. Following the incident, women came out onto the streets to protest sexual violence, and women’s rights groups stepped up their online activism. With the global acceleration of the #MeToo movement this year, Korea’s feminist wave has also picked up pace.

While this was happening, Turnbull was observing the heating up of what may be called a “gender war.” As all of society’s feelings of discontent and dismay were foisted off on the shoulders of women.

Source: Arirang News.

South Korea has one of the highest rates of tertiary education in the world, meaning that most young people will attend university. However, without a proportional level of demand in the job market, the youth unemployment rate is almost 10%—that’s three times higher than the global average. After graduating, most people can only find work in convenience stores and coffee shops, relying on the lowest paid positions to make a living. Still others choose to delay graduation despite the fact that there are no more classes for them to take.

Against this backdrop, [a vocal minority of] young men are blaming young women for having stolen all their opportunities. What’s more, some are beginning to question [compulsory] military service, claiming that it is unfair on men and are now seeking compensation.

In 2014, according to a South Korean National Statistical Office report, in the last four years there was a historic reversal in employment rates of males and females aged 20 or older. The female employment rate exceeded that of males for the first time since records began. “A female tornado” is one of the terms being used to describe what has become the latest hot topic.

Turnbull believes it is a term deliberately employed to cause agitation—the disparity in male and female employment rates is actually only 2.1%. However, the male groups of society have reacted swiftly and with mortal urgency in a massive backlash. Some men’s rights organizations have even called for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. In fact, according to a World Economic Forum 2015 report on Global Gender Inequality, South Korea still ranks 115th out of 145 countries. In the “economic participation and opportunities” categories, South Korea is 125th.

Issues of gender equality are always fiercely debated, and the ongoing economic stagnation throws that much more fuel upon the fire. But lines are not only being drawn between the gender camps. In a universally anxious social atmosphere, people will always seek to set up a common adversary to set off against their own in-groups. Turnbull provides an example: this year, over 500 Yemeni refugees were detained on Korea’s Jeju Island, sparking mass public protests. Unlike trends seen before in most other countries, where opposition to refugees is strongest among older generations, in Korea the exact opposite is the case. Against all expectations, younger people are the heart of the movement.

“In April, female MBC news anchor Lim Hyeon-ju caused a stir by becoming the first Korean anchor-woman to wear glasses while on-air. Shortly after this, Korean media released the results of two studies on gender bias.” Image source: YouTube.
“Female idols are frequently depicted in advertisements for the Korean military conscription service.” Source: MMA Facebook page; left, right)

“Middle-aged, white, male, heterosexual; I’m pretty much a member of the most hated group on the planet.” Turnbull jokes during the interview.

Upon first finding Turnbull’s blog, not all readers are supportive. “The main reason they hate me is because of my identity.”

“No one wants to hear about Korean feminism from a middle-aged white dude.” And Turnbull admits that this wariness is not without good reason [James—I put it much more strongly during the interview: when studying and writing about what—who—I do, there are many conceptual and practical issues stemming from my privileged background; I can only always be aware of them and strive to overcome them as best as I can, most notably by relying on as many native Korean sources as possible, and especially on Korean women themselves]. In his first few years in Korea, he [admits he naively and arrogantly] thought that he’d already come to understand everything about the country [partially because, unlike most expats, he’d already studied Korean history and society at university], and was more than ready to lecture others about it. But soon enough, he came to realize that he had been very wrong about this. “I’ve probably deleted about half of my previous articles, just because they no longer reflect my current opinions [and/or later proved to be completely wrong, as often pointed out by my female readers—many of the most vocal of whom would become my best friends later!].”

But the internet has a long memory. A little over a month ago, he received an email, a 3000-word polemic referencing a 10-year-old piece he had already deleted [9 years ago!].

[A significant proportion of those that take] issue with his work are [Asian-American women]. Turnbull mentions a slang term, “yellow fever,” used to describe white men with a [fetishistic] preference for [East] Asian women. [Because of it], many Asian-American women [regularly] have to face [sexual stereotyping and harassment from white men] in their everyday lives, and so talking about sex in Korea as he does often brings him under [immediate] suspicion [of being no different to those men]. [The vast majority of those that actually read his work soon see that he is not, but] some have penned vicious attacks against him, and still others have posted fake pictures of him online. [James—I feel compelled to add that a significant proportion of my fans are Asian-American women too! :) But the actual question was about my trolls, and I wasn’t going to lie. It just is how it is.]

Turnbull’s blog used to provide a popular space for discussion. In the comments section people would air their views, and readers from all over the world would have lively debates with one another. But with the sudden onset of the social media age, people had a great many more ways of accessing news, and the number of hits and comments his blog received decreased significantly—[although] thankfully, the number of attacks decreased accordingly as well.

Nowadays, Turnbull seems to occupy an awkward position. He occasionally attends LGBTQ marches or feminist demonstrations [in Korea], but only rarely. “As a middle-aged white guy [who sticks out like a sore thumb at these], I don’t really want to [draw people’s attention away from the issues the activists are demonstrating about].”

Even today, he can’t envision things as he did when he was starting out. That he could, through his blog, make the outside world believe that a foreigner could be more than just an English teacher.

He even laughingly tells us that these days a decent number [MOST!] of the hits on his blog come from people searching for porn. Unfortunately, most rarely stick around to read the articles!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Event Announcement: #FEMALEPLEASURE Screening, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, 1pm Saturday June 1

Sorry for the long break everyone, which was because of reasons. But I’m happy to say I do have an epic post in the works. And, while you’re waiting for that, I’m delighted to help a former student publicize this event in Seoul this weekend (하단으 보세요):

#FEMALEPLEASURE

– 5 cultures, 5 women, 1 story

A documentary about female sexuality and autonomy in the 21st century – film screening and discussion

An event organized through: Lecturing Program of the Robert Bosch Foundation in Asia (German Foundation)

(Sign up here)

#FEMALEPLEASURE portrays five courageous and smart women, breaking the silence imposed by their archaic-patriarch societies and religious communities. With incredible strength and positive energy, Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, and Vithika Yadav are fighting for sexual liberation and autonomy for women, beyond religious rules and cultural barriers.

#FEMALEPLEASURE shows the universal mechanisms at work that determine the position of women until today, spanning cultures, religions and continents: from Japan and India and the Somali muslim diaspora to the Hasidic community in New York and the Catholic clergy in Europe.

What can we learn from them? What do we have to talk about in Korea? How can men and women establish fruitful understanding and mutual respect?

On this day we will gather to see the movie and share a safe space to talk about important questions and feelings related to the topic in Korea. Everyone interested is welcome! 😊

When? Saturday, 1st June, 1pm – 4.30pm

Where? Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Main Building, Room 329

Language: Korean & English

Contribution: 3000WON – we organize Pizza & Drinks 😊

UPDATE: A Facebook event page has just been created!

본 이벤트는 Robert Bosch Foundation in Asia(독일 재단)의 교육프로그램을 기반으로 제작되었습니다.

21세기 여성의 성적 자기결정권에 관한 다큐멘터리 영화를 감상한 후 토의의 시간이 마련되어 있습니다. (5개의 각기 다른 문화에서 자란 여성들이 하나의 이야기를 하는 내용입니다.)

(여기서 등록하세요)

#FEMALEPLEASURE는 구시대적인 가부장 사회와 종교 커뮤니티들에 의해 강요되는 침묵을 깨뜨린 용감하고 똑똑한 다섯 명의 여성을 보여줍니다: Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, and Vithika Yadav. 이들은 놀라울 만큼 강인한 모습과 긍정적인 에너지를 통해 종교 율법이나 문화 장벽을 뛰어넘어 여성의 성적 자율성을 위해 싸우는 중입니다.

#FEMALEPLEASURE는 또한 일본, 인도, 소말리아 이슬람 디아스포라 에서 뉴욕의 하시디즘 커뮤니티와 유럽의 카톨릭 성직자들에 이르기까지 문화, 종교, 대륙 전반에 걸쳐 여성의 지위를 결정해 온 보편적인 메커니즘이 무엇인지 보여줍니다.

우리는 이들에게서 무엇을 배울 수 있을까요? 한국과 관련해서는 어떤 이야기들을 해야 할까요? 또 남성과 여성은 어떻게 해야 유익한 이해관계를 확립하고 서로를 존중할 수 있을까요?

함께 모여 영화를 감상한 후에 이 주제와 관련된 한국의 중요한 이슈, 궁금증 혹은 감정을 편하게 공유하는 시간을 가질 예정입니다. 관심 있는 사람은 모두 환영입니다! 😊

언제? 6월 1일 토요일, 1:00 – 4:30 (오후)

어디서? 한국외국어대학교 본관 329호

language: 한국어 & 영어

참가비: 3000원 – 피자와 음료 제공에 사용됩니다 😊

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Why Does Korea Have so Many of Those Damn Smutty Ads?

Government inaction on Korea’s ubiquitous, sexually-explicit internet advertising undermines claims that its citizens need protecting from pornography, and has helped shape the Korean #Metoo movement.

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels. One NSFW image later.

When even the ad industry itself is calling for greater government regulation of sexual imagery in ads, you know Korea’s got a problem.

The main issue is that there’s just no escaping them. In the most recent survey of 155 major web portals, social media services, and online news sites conducted by the Korea Internet Advertising Foundation (KIAF) in 2016, 94.5 percent of the middle and high school students surveyed were found to have been exposed to sexualized ads. Frustratingly, the 69-page report (PDF, Korean) doesn’t also mention what proportion those ads were of the total ads examined. But, maybe the authors simply felt that was unnecessary, as everyone already knows that their numbers are just insane:

See the thread for many more examples. Or like Raphael says, almost any Korean news website. Even alongside the cutesy, assumed safe webtoons my preteen daughters read too, I recently learned, sometimes there’s invitations to meet horny divorcees in our area.

But Korea’s smutty ads problem goes much deeper than just their scale, or their astonishing inappropriateness. For the KIAF surveyors also found that one in four of the offending ads promoted sex work, and/or even showed sex acts. Which is heinous not because either are unethical, but because such ads exist so openly in a society where sex work and pornography are both illegal, and which would never see the light of day if they were placed in traditional media.

Which begs the question: just how did Korea’s internet ad problem get so bad?

In the first instance, it’s simply down to advertisers’ algorithms, combined with the inattention and unconcern of site owners. This was ironically and hilariously revealed by the reporting of a similar survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) in June 2012, when many news sites displaying precisely the kinds of ads the Ministry was railing against alongside the articles about the survey. Even more spectacularly, a few weeks previously many news site editors curiously chose to pixelate the bikini tops and bras of women who had written political messages across their breasts (as in only their clothing, not the messages or exposed skin), while those in the accompanying ads were left untouched:Fast forward to April 2018, when representatives from major Korean shopping portal sites were queried by The PR News reporter An Seon-hye as to why their Facebook ads for products such as headphones and men’s shoes tended to show women with exposed cleavage and/or in their underwear first. They simply blamed the algorithms, implying that somehow those absolved their companies of any responsibility:

페이스북에서 남성 이용자들에게 노출된 쿠팡 광고 이미지 “Coupang advertisement aimed at male users of Facebook.” Image source: The PR News.
티몬(왼쪽) 및 gs샵이 sns에서 남성들에게 집행한 광고 이미지. “Images of Timon(L) and GS Shop advertisements aimed at men.” The woman on the right is Ai Shinozaki, a Japanese gravure model. Image source: The PR News.

…하지만 해당 업체들은 결코 고의성이 없다는 점을 강조했다. 티몬 관계자는 “저희 같은 경우 19금 용품 광고는 아예 노출이 안 되도록 막는 등 선정성 측면에서 신경을 쓰고 있다”며 “자동 로직으로 광고 집행이 이뤄지기에 임의로 자극적 이미지를 사용한 게 아니다”고 해명했다.

“…However, industry representatives stressed that, in the end, there is never any deliberate intention to use sexualized imagery. A representative from Timon said, ‘In our case, from the outset we do work to ensure that no adults-only products are selected to be advertised [on Facebook],’ and that ‘the provocative images that do appear are not random, but are chosen automatically by the algorithm.'”

기본적으로 특정 시간대에 특정 연령 타깃군이 어떤 상품을 많이 봤다는 데이터가 쌓이면 이를 해당 타깃에게 동일하게 추천하는 방식으로 로직이 짜여 있다는 설명이다. 이번 노출도 이같은 설정 때문에 벌어진 현상일 수는 있지만, 의도한 건 아니라는 설명이다.

“Basically, when collected data on a site suggests that a certain time is the most heavily frequented by a targeted demographic, the algorithm automatically recommends products that demographic is likely to be interested in. The same logic applies to the revealing images accompanying them, but has never been the deliberate intention [of our company.]”

쿠팡 관계자 역시 “쿠팡이 고의적으로 선정적인 광고를 남성에게 보이도록 조작하지는 않았다”며 “활용되는 이미지 역시 판매자가 올린 것을 활용한 것”이라고 밝혔다.

“A representative from Coupang also claimed that their company ‘did not deliberately manipulate ads to target men with sexualized imagery,’ explaining that ‘the images of products [available from our site] are simply taken from available sellers.’ (end)

By all means, gratuitous T&A does sometimes work, especially when those objects belong to popular K-pop girl-group members. Yet it infuriates me when some, more radical feminists—especially anti-pornography activists—start from the position that such narrow portrayals of women are an accurate reflection of most—or even a significant minority of—cishet men’s tastes; examples like these demonstrate just how disingenuous and utterly unfair that assumption is. It’s also very patronizing for companies to advertise this way, says Sejong University Professor Kim Ji-heon elsewhere in the above article, and has the potential to put men off offending brands. Accordingly, evidence of sexualization’s effectiveness on Korean consumers is mixed, one 2017 study by Yonsei University researchers (PDF, Korean) for example, discovering that young Korean men actually preferred cute to sexy female models in game advertisements (which may be problematic for other reasons, but that’s a story for another post). Also, lest we forget, not all consumers are young men, with another study from 2012 (PDF, Korean) by Sungkyunkwan University researchers demonstrating that despite soju companies specifically targeting female consumers at the time, somehow women just weren’t responding to the ensuing “sexy” advertisements.

I can’t imagine why:

Screenshots from this summer 2009 commercial for ‘Cool Soju 168’; the logic was that “168” referred to a low 16.8% alcohol content, which supposedly helped women maintain their figure vis-a-vis stronger brands. One NSFW image follows shortly.

Nevertheless, Coupang’s algorithms at least, have hardly been tweaked since The PR News report came out, as any male Facebook user in Korea can confirm. Take this advertisement I was blessed with on the subway a few weeks ago for instance:

Facebook has given me 24 hour bans for far less.

Of course, in reality, no algorithms are value-neutral, so can’t be used as an excuse. Yet, to reluctantly play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, perhaps one reason Korea’s algorithms have the settings they do is that advertisers generally lean more heavily on sex-sells tropes during recessions, and one indication of how bad Korea’s is at the moment would be its highest youth unemployment rate in two decades. Another explanation of why they tend to be sooo eye-catching is that Hangul, the writing system, lacks capitals. This, which has factored into Korean webdesign from the get-go, is why Korean websites tend to be so GIF-heavy and cluttered to Western eyes, but is familiar to and preferred by Koreans. (Japanese websites are very similar, due to similar issues with kanji and kana.) Ingrained media culture and consumer habits go some way toward explaining why Japanese and Korean advertisers over-rely on celebrities to get your attention too.

But all of these contributing factors are decades old. I first noted the alleged link to the economy ten years ago, and the numbers of smutty ads have only increased since. Korean websites have overwhelmed me with GIFs since I first started having to navigate them in internet cafes here nineteen years ago. And the over-reliance on celebrities dates back to the early-1980s, when fifteen seconds became the standard length for TV commercials.

If so many features of Korean advertising are products of ingrained culture and long-term habit then, surely this over-reliance on sexualization could be as well? So too, that it just so happens to be a very stereotypically male-gazey version of it at that?

Noteworthy in this regard is men’s domination of multiple sectors of the Korean media:

However, the Korean advertising industry is absent from that Twitter thread, and I’m personally unaware of its male-female make-up as I type this (sorry). So, let me defer to someone with inside experience: Seoul National University Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, who conducted fieldwork in winter 2009-2010 at the agency responsible for the delightful Cool Soju 168 commercial from summer 2009 above. And in fact, in that agency at least, women made up roughly half of the employees. But it was indeed male-dominated, as no women there were above level five of the eight ranks within its internal hierarchy, “with truly managerial responsibilities [only] beginning at level six.” Also, the ensuing work-culture there could certainly be described as male-dominated too:

To assert that “sex sells”—the axiom that no one doubts in advertising and perhaps few do in society at large—was the usual way to deflect my criticisms of sexualized portrayals of women in much of Korean advertising, and women repeated that adage as eagerly as men.

Still, despite their professional embrace of the “sex code,” women showed a certain distance towards its centrality to advertising. They occasionally mocked male managers who favored sex-appeal strategies by default, “just because they like to look at pretty women,” as Chin’a put it, as she vented about wasting an afternoon the day before because her team’s Creative Director asked her to accompany him to help pick a female model for a commercial. “He said he wanted a woman’s opinion but in reality he just picked the model who he personally liked and who was flirty with him,” she said rolling her eyes in front of me and four other women as we were having lunch. Chin’a thought that the selected model was not the best choice, but the Creative Director never asked Chin’a’s opinion and even went as far as to re-schedule the shoot around the model, without consulting the convenience of other team members. Chin’a wished she had spent that afternoon working on their team’s other accounts.

Technically however, Fedorenko does not state if the same agency was responsible for the Cool soju commercial I criticized; I should have only said it “probably” was, because it was responsible for a new campaign for same product during Fedorenko’s time there a few months later. Ironically, a largely women-created and targeted, sexually-progressive, feminist, and therefore controversial one:

Which would seem to contradict the points made about work culture above. So too, that they’re from a snapshot of just one agency, and a decade old.

However, it’s also telling that there’s been almost nothing quite like that campaign in Korean advertising since, by any agency. Despite my fetish for Korean ads showing actual grown women with sexual desire and experience, I’m only aware of less than a handful produced in the last decade. Meanwhile, compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean TV commercials, a figure that is over twice as high and nearly ten times as high as their Japanese and Hong Kong counterparts respectively.

And yet, despite everything, I’m reluctant to attribute all that simply to the likely dominance of men in the industry.

Yes, we can all bet good money that the coders behind offensive internet algorithms are indeed sexist pricks. Or their bosses. Or at best, that they’re unoriginal and conservative.

But to claim that Korean ads are the way they are because men dominate the industry, is to make the assumption that most of the men within are also sexist pricks.

Hey, I’m not dismissing the possibility. In fact, I’d bet good money on that too. Given what we know about Korean ads, and that Korea has the biggest gender gap in the OECD, and comes 121st out of 193 countries in the ratio of female legislators to males, then there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that Korea’s toxic, patriarchal work culture hasn’t also infected the Korean ad industry.

But where does that accusation get us? If we want to persuade industry insiders to embrace change, what good would simply calling them sexist pricks actually achieve?

And cishet men’s sexuality, I can’t stress often enough, is so much richer and broader than its blokey, infantile stereotypes suggest. There are men of other sexualities in the ad industry too, not to mention (probably) equal numbers of women. I refuse to believe that all the admen, by definition among the most creative and artistic men in Korean society, all chose their careers based on no more than a shared dream of putting more boobs on phone screens, and that every man and woman who doesn’t share that grand vision is simply forced to acquiesce.

The issues raised in this post may even be well-recognized problems within the industry already too, but are intractable due to the influence of Korea’s patriarchal work culture as alluded to earlier, one big influence being the rigid hierarchy and visions of women and male-female relations learned before entering the industry from that vast socialization experience known as universal male conscription.

Or not: my apologies again, for lacking the money and time to translate dense Korean advertising tomes to find out. But either way, suggesting practical, actionable steps that the industry may already be receptive to does sound much more helpful than simply rolling our eyes at THE MENZ.

I think this is where we came in.

Recall that we started with the industry itself calling for more regulation. Specifically, the KIAF, responsible for the 2016 survey:

“Although there are guidelines for the level of sexuality permitted in online advertising, they lack effectiveness since they tend to be too generic and ambiguous,” said the KIAF official. “Regulations that manage such advertisements are scattered across government departments, and they need to be revamped.

A state of affairs which sounds suspiciously similar to the messy censorship of K-pop in the early-2010s:

The recent guidelines by the Fair Trade Commission are demonstrably inadequate, and laws are required instead. But considering that any limits on such a vague concept as sexualization are by definition arbitrary, then it is crucial that 1) the ensuing legislation process is transparent; 2) that implementation of the laws is consistent; and 3) that only one, preferably independent, organization has the power of censorship. Currently, that last is divided between a plethora of competing media and government organizations, and the ensuing unpredictable and often bizarre decisions ― including banning a music video for the singers driving without wearing seat belts, or allowing exposed navels on men but not on women ― have thoroughly undermined the credibility of attempts to curb the sexualization of teens in K-pop. A fresh start is urgently needed.

“Restrictions Imposed on 18+ Controversial ‘Wide Leg Spread Dance’”, April 2011. Source.

This segue into K-pop is no mere confirmation bias from a trusted source: for the body with the most responsibility for censoring K-pop then was MOGEF, which it did with a relish. As Lee Yoo-eun at Global Voices explained in 2014 (links added by me):

The censors of the ministry are notorious for accusing several thousand songs of being “hazardous” whenever they notice references to liquor, cigarettes or sex in the lyrics. Once a song is labeled as “inappropriate for youth under the age 19″ it can only be broadcast after 10:00 PM, and children are forbidden from buying it as well as from listening on the internet. Many young people get around this by using the IDs of their parents to login to Korean portal websites or watch on YouTube.

Music industry people…say it is troubling that the censorship is applied only to some randomly selected albums after they have hit the market, and not universally to every album. Many people see this as part of a new reality where the South Korean government is tightening control over citizens and free speech.

And this zealousness was in stark contrast to the complete inaction by MOGEF over smutty advertisements, despite raising the alarm in 2012 about their surging numbers as discussed. Indeed, it wanted the industry to do its own work for it instead:

여성가족부는 작년과 비교해 유해 광고는 늘었지만 법 위반 언론사들이 대폭 감소한 것을 감안해, 언론사에는 우선 자율 규제를 촉구하겠다는 입장이다. 청소년매체환경과 관계자는 “작년에 34개 언론사가 법을 위반했는데 올해에는 다 시정됐다”며 “언론사들을 직접 규제하기 보다는 인터넷신문협회 등에 자율규제기구인 인터넷신문광고심의위원회의 설치를 촉구하겠다”고 밝혔다.

“Although MOGEF points out that the numbers of harmful advertisements have increased since last year, the fact that there are actually less media companies breaking the law also needs to be taken into consideration, so first MOGEF is going ask media companies to regulate themselves. The official in the Division of Youth Media Environment continued: ‘The 34 media companies that broke the the Information and Communications Network Law last year have all since rectified their mistakes,’ and so ‘a self-regulatory system is preferable to direct regulation, and we demand that the Korean Internet Newspaper Association and so on establish an internet newspaper advertisement consideration committee.'” (end)

Further inaction still is evident from how, in the 2010-2016 period, MOGEF’s Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE) was given the task of monitoring mass media for cases of sexual discrimination, sexual prejudice, and sexual insults, but was given extremely limited resources to do so, and didn’t even cover the internet; ultimately only four cases were ever acted upon in those entire seven years. A subsequent study in 2016 found an undisclosed number of issues, of which the KIGEPE said “the results from their monitoring [had] resulted in 19 cases of corrective action [as of March 2017], insisting more education and appropriate measures need to be provided for TV show makers to achieve gender equality in the TV industry.” (More recently, this January the Korea Communications Standards Commission {KOSC} noted problems remained in variety shows specifically, without suggesting any measures to combat them.)

Yet that’s just MOGEF, which—without absolving it for its inaction—admittedly had very low resources and was in a precarious political position under previous conservative governments. If we look at the Korean media and its various overseers as a whole however, inaction over misogyny and problematic content is endemic, Korean dramas in particular being notorious for depicting dating violence as romance, but which the KOSC has washed their hands of. And don’t get me started on the media’s constant framing of the sexualization of minors in K-pop as good, clean, harmless family fun.

Source: Netizenbuzz.

In that wider context, inaction on smutty ads emerges as less the exception than the rule in the Korean media, and underpins a pervasive culture of indifference and desensitization towards degrading images and videos of (overwhemingly) women. That culture is evident in the decade-long foot-dragging in the shutting-down of Soranet, a hugely popular pornography site notorious for the sharing of hidden camera videos, as well as in the Korean #MeToo movement’s unique emphasis on punishing the purveyors of such videos, a central component in the current Burning Sun scandal. I can’t help but ultimately see links to the culture of indifference and desensitization towards sexual abuse by teachers in Korean schools too, with over 40 percent of perpetrators in the January 2013 to September 2018 period still teaching, and again only, finally, being aggressively challenged due to the Korean #MeToo movement.

Nextshark: “The School of Performing Arts Seoul, the alma mater of numerous well-known K-drama and K-pop stars, is facing co‌ntrov‌ers‌y after its former students a‌‌c‌‌cu‌‌s‌e‌‌‌d the school of c‌o‌rrup‌tio‌n and se‌x‌u‌al ‌ex‌‌pl‌oita‌‌tion of minors [through a music video].”

But perhaps it’s a too much of leap from boobs on my smartphone to tolerating “asking students for ‘sexiness’ and ‘inappropriate touches’ during school performances”?

Or not. Either way, if the government started to enforce the same standards for internet ads as it does for all other forms of pop culture, that would surely be the perfect way to find out.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Looking For Recommendations: Potential Interviewees for Topic of “Sexualized Bullying Among Men in the Military in South Korea”

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Photo by Sebastiaan Stam from Pexels.

I’ve been asked to pass on the following, prompted by my post “Sex as Power in the South Korean Military” and its update. Unfortunately, I haven’t worked on the topic in many years, making me an unhelpful interviewee myself, so the least I could do for Shao Yuan was to help him in his search. Please get in touch with him if you know something about the subject, and/or pass this post on to someone else who might! Thanks!

I am Shao Yuan, an undergraduate student completing my Bachelor of Arts (Double Major in History and Psychology) currently looking into conducting my Honours research on the topic of “Male-to-Male Sexualized Bullying in Conscript Armies in East Asia”. One of the key countries that will be explored in this research will be South Korea, hence this post today.

As part of the Honours requirement, students in the History department have to complete the prerequisite course HIST492 History, Theory and Methods course that intends to train students up with the research skills required for completing an Honours project based on their planned Honours topic. Under the supervision of Dr. Jessica Stites Mor, one of the assignments we are expected to complete would be a podcast interview with an expert regarding our research topic. With that, I hope to ask for recommendations on potential experts to interview on the abovementioned research topic.

Should you agree to participate in my interview, I’d be happy to send you a list of prepared questions which I’d be asking you through the interview. These would be basic questions in relation to the trend of sexual violence taking place in South Korea’s military back then and even up until today, to some of the developments that have taken place since the suicide of the soldier, Kim, that had taken place in 2003. As the interview will be conducted through either an online call or a video conference call, it’ll also be great to hear from you on some of your available dates in the coming week, should you be willing to take on the interview.

Please do feel free to contact me at shaoyuan.chong@ubc.ca should you have any queries on my research, assignment or recommendations. Should you feel comfortable to speak about this topic, please do feel free to reach out to me.

Otherwise, thank you so much for taking the time to read through this post, and have a wonderful day ahead!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

An Englishman Who Writes a Feminist Blog in South Korea: Sex, Gender, and the Elephants in the Room

Estimated reading time: 1 minute. Image source: Pixabay.

Which I think is the correct translation of “一个在韩国写女权主义博客的英国人:性、性别和房间里的大象”, a long interview of me by Yiyi Zhang of Q Daily. Unfortunately for non-Chinese speakers, a lot is lost in the translation, but the gist is still there, and I’m happy that the comments generally seem to be positive. Please hit me up in the comments here if you’d like any clarification about anything in the translation, and/or if you just have any of your own questions about life, love, elephants, and what it’s been like blogging about Korean feminism for the last 11 years!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

On K-pop Stars Dating

Precious few songwriters and MV directors present female K-pop stars as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire. But these assigned gender roles can quickly crumble under revelations that they’re actually in relationships, as can as the business models that depend on them.

Estimated combined reading time: 8 minutes. Photo by Zun Zun from Pexels.

Recently, I was email-interviewed by James Griffiths at CNN about Cube Entertainment firing HyunA and E’Dawn for dating. My contribution to the final article is necessarily brief though, so here’s my original longer response to his question about just why K-pop labels are so sensitive about their stars’ love lives:

That some fans feel they have a strong personal bond with their idols, and then feel betrayed when those idols are revealed to be in a relationship, is a problem hardly confined to K-pop fandom. But it is amplified by three characteristic features of Korean popular culture.

First, there is the overexposure of its celebrities. Flick through the channels, and it is entirely possible to see the same K-pop star in an MV, a talkshow, a commercial, and a drama. And for each, they’ll generally be expected to maintain the persona for which they’re best known.

Next, as a broad rule, virginal personas are overwhelmingly preferred for unmarried female K-pop stars. Precious few songwriters and MV directors are prepared to present them as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire, as a decade’s experience with censors has taught that their work will generally get banned if they do.

Consequently, in K-pop, most women are presented as scantily-clad, passive objects for the male gaze, regardless of the actual make-up of a girl-group’s fandom. Again, this centralizing of supposed cishet male tastes as the norm isn’t unique to Korea. But the third and final feature is that the Korean media has tended to downplay their criticisms of this, so asamong other reasonsnot to jeopardize the success of the Korean Wave overseas. This deliberate myopia however, has contributed to such phenomena as the rise of middle-ageuncle fans,” who are defined by supposedly only possessing a harmless avuncular love for teenage girl-groups in hot pants—and a lot of money to spend on them.

Clearly, revelations of K-pop stars dating challenge all these tenets of Korean pop-culture, and their fundamentally gendered nature explains why the negative reactions have overwhelmingly been directed at the women in those relationships, who simultaneously get slut-shamed by both their entitled male fans and the female fans of their partners.

Those last two paragraphs link up to my answer to another question of James’s, about to what extent it’s fans or labels that are driving these attitudes to stars dating. And you can guess which way I went in light of this recent breakdown of the top 3 labels’ revenues:

Source: Jenna Gibson, Korea Economic Institute and The Korea Society @YouTube (3:50).

But I’ll cover the significance of those numbers in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there are many huge generalizations in my answer to James’s first question of course, and it’s also entirely possible that I still look at K-pop through the prism of when I got into it back in 2010, and have had terrible confirmation bias ever since. If so, and you feel the gist of any of my generalizations are outdated, then please do let me know. I would just love the excuse to crack open some new K-pop books and journal articles I’ve been hoarding, and to get back into writing more about the subject here.

No really—please rip my email to shreds! I beg you! ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)