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!^^

Concerns About Body Image? Light(en) Up!


In fashion-crazy South Korea, so many young women refuse to trade their high heels for flip-flops at [Haeundae] beach that green Astroturf runways are installed so they won’t wobble and fall…

…[Kim Na-young, a 23-year-old fashionista in skyscraper spiked heels] “They’re a little uncomfortable,” she said. “But they make you look taller in your swimsuit.”

(Los Angeles Times, 14/08/2011)

Like most overseas news about Korea, that’s surely an exaggeration: I jog along nearby Gwangalli Beach several times a week, but rarely see any women wearing high-heels on the sand itself, let alone while in a swimsuit. But I guess at least Kim Na-young does, and I’m curious as to how she came to believe that she had to dress – and presumably diet – like a model 24/7 in order to be attractive.

“It’s all diet advertisements’ fault!” I’m sure you expect to me to say, and indeed I do think they play a huge role. But let’s not forget HyunA’s latest MV not all of them are created equal, with Post’s latest ones for Light up (라이트업) cereal being especially egregious. For not only do they promote the idea that being tall and ultra-skinny is the only attractive body shape for women, but also that having one is absolutely necessary for one’s career:

Most of that is self-explanatory, but let me add the dialogue for completeness’s sake (note that it’s normal to address someone by their position in Korean workplaces):

(Average) Kim Sa-rang: 과장님, 오늘 회의 몇  시 예요? Department head, what time is the meeting today?

(Presumably slim) Woman in background: 안녕하세요 과장님! Hello Department head!

Department head: 하…. Haaa…

(Average) Kim Sa-rang: 과장님? Department head?

Department head: 몰라! 하… (Dismissively) I don’t know! Haaa….

Voiceover: 방심했었다면, light up! 통쌀로 칼로리는…Light 다이어트는 up! If you’ve been inattentive about your body, light up! Made with unpeeled rice, light up has few calories…light diet up!

Department head: 하…뭘 드셨길래? Light up? Light up? Haaa…what did you eat? Light up? Light up?

(New slim) Kim Sa-rang: 자신감 up! Confidence up!

To play Devil’s advocate, being attractive is always going to help one’s career, but that’s just about the only defense that can be made of this ad. In particular, note the women it (and others in the series) present as unattractive:


In the ad in the top left and bottom right, supposedly the unnamed model is much too fat to consider wearing a bikini, as is the woman in the background in the bottom left. And as for Kim Sa-rang, the entire ad concept relies on her being unattractive at the top right, but transformed after eating the cereal into what you see in the bottom-left, despite the inconvenient fact that she (presumably) had exactly the same body in both shots.

Other problems with the ad include the confusing insertion of a fox’s tail on the Department head (as far as I know, foxes have a female image in Korean culture), and how he’s portrayed as such a, well, complete dickhead. This is further stressed in a slightly longer version of the ad:

Department head (from where the original version ends):

여성여러분 다이어트는 뭘까요? Women, what’s a diet?

남친이 영화를 볼때 옆구리 살을 확 잡을때… When you’re watching a movie with your boyfriend and he grabs your waist…

하지마 너 하지마임마! 하지말라구! Don’t, you idiot! I said don’t! [James – in cutesy slang]

짜증나시죠? 릴랙스하세요… It’s annoying worrying about it, right? Please relax…

Light Up! 자신있게 권해 드립니다! I strongly recommend you Light up!

On a final note though, I should mention that of course is it not only the Korean media that promotes the notion that only tall and skinny is attractive. Indeed, in fact the very first thing the ad reminded me of was a New Zealand Listener review of the forgettable 1996 movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs, which pointed out that only in Hollywood would Janeane Garofalo ever be considered homely and unattractive (and which the whole movie was based on).


For the (more predictable) second thing the ad reminded me of, please see here!


Female Flesh Under Consumer Capitalism: Meet the Meat?

(Source: Busan Focus, 16 May 2011, p. 13)

Hey, I get it, I really do: ads that make men want the girl, can make women want to be that girl.

Hence the memorable things Lee Hyori did with a hose for Vidal Sassoon back in 2007 for instance. Or indeed this ad, which, despite the English copy, actually says that “the lunch for amazing women has started”, and then proceeds to do no more to sell to said amazing women than simply plonking Kim Sa-rang (김사랑) with a smouldering gaze on it, flanked by Lee Tae-im (이태임) with textbook hair-preening and hand on hip.

Surely there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, although being aimed at women, it’s still squarely aimed at a male gaze?

But if that’s what so bugged me about it, then critically analyzing ads would only ever be an exercise in frustration. And I’m not even against gendered marketing per se either: despite the vast majority of it having no biological basis, and also serving to create and/or reinforcing existing gender stereotypes, admittedly it does sometimes have a genuine financial logic.

Rather, it’s the sheer laziness of this ad that gets me: was this really the best T.G.I. Friday’s could have come up with to get women to eat more steak?

Also, it’s amazing how unnatural the ad suddenly appears if you mentally replace the copy with “amazing men” instead (let alone considering how the ensuing male models would pose). When I did so myself, it really hit me just how much gendered marketing is actually aimed only at women, and how many normative advertising categorizations of female consumers (e.g. Alpha Girls, Omega Girls, Gold Misses etc.) completely lack any male equivalents.

Which is an unfortunate association I now have with T.G.I. Friday’s I guess. But then they’re the ones that came up with such a lame ad!