Korean Sociological Image #8: America…Fuck Yeah!

Korean Advertisement Sungshin Women's University Relative Size Racism Caucasian

An advertisement from today’s Korea Times, which immediately grabbed my attention for 3 reasons:

  • It’s for a women’s university, but not only does it feature men, it has more men than women.
  • It has a Caucasian man in it, whereas the target audience would overwhelmingly be Korean.
  • The Caucasian man is easily the most prominent feature in it, and is looking at the viewer rather than into the distance like the Korean students.

After just a few minutes thought though, obvious reasons emerge for all of those: men are and should be featured because the program is available to both men and women (well technically, the website doesn’t mention anything about the sex of applicants) for instance, and for all their ethnic diversity Caucasians are still an instant and logical signifier of Western countries. And dealing face to face with an American colleague at an American hospital – ie, having a job at one – is precisely the goal of students that will enter this program too, which in turn is well represented by the Koreans in the advertisement looking towards their futures as it were. As the male Korean is wearing a tie, then I’m a bit unsure as to whether the Koreans are supposed to be students in the program or graduates with jobs looking for better opportunities, but other than that slight confusion then the advertisement appears logical as a whole.

Still, despite myself it gives me misgivings.

One minor reason is because the doctor is male. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it seems strange to have a male role-model in an advertisement for a women’s university. Yes, I know I just said that the doctor is supposed to be a future colleague, yet in addition to representing both that and a life in America he does still have a job that students entering into the program would aspire to. If the primary target of the advertisement is women then, not choosing a female doctor seems like a wasted opportunity to kill three birds with one stone.

kim-tae-hee-kang-dong-won-cyon-phone-advertisement-relative-size-eab980ed839ced9dac-eab095eb8f99ec9b90( Source )

But dammit, why’d he have to be so big? As I discuss at great length here, relative size is one of the most powerful tools in advertising, not only making certain features more prominent than others but also – especially when it’s used to contrast two or more people of different sexes, ethnicities, jobs, ages, and so on – both determining and conforming to social norms of ranking, status, and appropriate social roles. For instance, if you take a random man and woman then in 1 in 6 cases the woman will be of equal height or taller, but in advertisements the figure is closer to 1 in 20 or even less. Not that that is evidence of sexism per se though, as women overwhelmingly prefer men that are taller than themselves, and it’s natural that many advertisements would reflect this. Moreover, if you’ve chosen specific celebrities with a significant height difference, say Kang Dong-won (강동원) and Kim Tae-hee (김태희) above, then it would be difficult to engineer a realistic-looking advertisement in which he somehow appears shorter than her.

kim-tae-hee-kang-dong-won-cyon-phone-advertisement-eab491eab3a0-relative-size-eab980ed839ced9dac-eab095eb8f99ec9b90But then consider this advertisement on the right with the exact same couple (source), in which the height difference has been significantly reduced. Sure, it’s not the only reason why the advertisement has a completely different, more egalitarian vibe than the first, but I’d argue that it’s the most important one. And to hammer that point home, consider how simply bizarre everyone would find the above, gangsterish one if Kim Tae-hee were just a little bigger, let alone if a woman taller than Kang Dong-won had been used.

Ergo, size matters, and so while my concern with Sunghin Women’s University’s advertisement may well only stem from the inherent angst of being a socially-aware Caucasian male, guilty at living in a country where being such undeniably confers certain advantages, it still leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable. I would have much preferred one that focused more on the Korean students themselves, and how the program empowered them, but while retaining the signifiers of America, the job, and so on. Not something that basically says:

Oooh, do this course, and you can talk to and work with White people! In America!!! What more could you ever want?

Okay, that specific vocalization may just be me. Or is it? That’s a rather indelicate way to put it above, but it is certainly true that living and working (and being educated) in America conveys a lot of status in Korean society, so far from me implying that any Korean is a passive dupe for responding positively to advertisements like this it is logical and intelligent for them to do so. Moreover, my wife, who is Korean, pointed out that most Koreans wouldn’t think twice about the Caucasian in this ad. Perhaps my concerns are misplaced then.

What do you think? Mere overanalysis and liberal-arts major angst on my part? Or a legitimate concern? Regardless, admit that the doctor is the first person you noticed too though!

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)