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)