In the News: Korean Celebrity, Ethnic Nationalism, and Beauty Ideals

Kim Yuna may well be the “Ad Queen” in South Korea, but the reality is that precious few female athletes have the face and body-type necessary to get noticed by Korean advertisers. Whereas for male athletes, they just have to be good at their sports.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Image source: YouTube via Humoruniv.

My writing is pretty erratic these days, because reasons. Sorry about that. One of those reasons is worth mentioning though: I’ve been fielding lots of inquiries from journalists instead. Here are some of the results:

First up, from “In Pyeongchang, a surprise visit from Queen Yuna” by Nathan VanderKlippe in The Globe and Mail:

For “Korean advertisers, all their Christmases came at once when Kim Yuna became popular,” said James Turnbull, a South Korea-based author who writes about Korean feminism, sexuality and pop-culture.

By at least one measure, celebrity matters more in South Korea than elsewhere. Roughly 60 per cent of the country’s advertisements feature endorsements, some six times higher as those in the United States. Former South Korean advertising executive Bruce Haines once called the country’s advertising “beautiful people holding a bottle.”

Mr. Turnbull is critical of the unfair standards this imposes. South Korean Ahn Sun-ju was among the best golfers in the world, but South Korean advertisers said she needed plastic surgery if she wanted to appear in commercials.

Ms. Kim, however, “was tailor-made for Korean advertisements,” Mr. Turnbull said. She is “young, attractive, photogenic, a figure skater – thin, tall – whose body is the type they want.”

“The question isn’t so much why she retired so early as why she retired so late,” he added. “Because really, did she enjoy what she was doing?”

There’s lots to unpack in that short segment. Starting with giving credit to Roboseyo for the point about advertisers’ love of Kim Yu-na, who wrote that in 2009:

Kim Yu-na…is a teen-aged figure skating phenomenon out of Seoul. She’s only eighteen years old now, and she’s been kicking the crap out of the ladies’ singles category for a few years already. She’s telegenic and cute: she appears in TV commercials here in Korea and sells, better than most of Korea’s other “Best in the world/Korea at X” stars, for example Park Ji-sung (family name Park), the Soccer (that’s Football to the rest of the world) star who is holding his own impressively on Manchester United, but who’s so ugly, and un-charismatic in front of the camera, that they can only make commercials like this [long since deleted example—sorry]: keep the camera at a distance, and show him kicking stuff, because that’s the only time he looks impressive. (Notice at the end of the ad, when the close-up is as short as they can make it and still have him be recognizable, as if the camera’s afraid to get close to his face).

Catch me on a bad hair day, and I’m hardly charismatic in front of a camera myself. I’m all about widening the media’s narrow range of beauty ideals too. But it’s objectively true: even at his physical peak, Park Ji-sung’s face would never have launched a thousand ships. As a male celebrity however, his phenomenal popularity for his sporting prowess meant that advertisers still flocked to him nonetheless, especially after it became apparent he was responsible for one million new Manchester United-branded Shinhan Mastercard accounts. Add various other factors responsible for that world-high celebrity endorsement rate of 60 percent of TV commercials (see my journal article), plus—in this case—Koreans’ (in)famous toleration of blatant photoshopping, then you can hardly blame Gillette for joining his bandwagon in 2009:

Sources: Hidomin (2006), Betanews (2009).

Like Park Ji-sung, golfer Ahn Sun-ju was one of the best at her sport in Korea. Unlike Park Ji-sung, she was cursed with being a woman, which meant advertisers were very concerned about her appearance—and her body type didn’t fit their narrow requirements. Frustrated with her ensuing lack of corporate sponsorship, she ultimately chose to compete in Japan instead, where—to my shock and pleasant surprise—advertisers were more interested in her sporting achievements. As The Korea Times explains:

…[Ahn] said that when she competed in Korea, her ability as a golfer was never enough.

“Some (potential Korean) sponsors even demanded I get a plastic surgery,” she said. “Companies did not consider me as a golf athlete, only that I was a woman. It mattered most to them was whether my appearance was marketable. I was deeply hurt by that.”

Ahn her made pro debut with the KLPGA in 2006 and won six tournaments before jumping to the JPLGA. But despite her stellar play, she struggled to find a corporate sponsor in Korea.

“As you can see, I do not have a pretty face, I am not thin, I am not what you would call sexy,” Ahn said. “But does that mean I shouldn’t be playing golf?

“Japanese companies, on the other hand, focused on my ability as a golfer. They are more concerned about my performance and how I treat my fans. I am being sponsored by six Japanese companies, including a clothing brand.”

Writing in Kore in response to that article, Ethel Navales speculates that we can’t “say for certain that Ahn’s decision to move to JLPGA was due to Korea’s inability to accept her physical appearance”, and that she may have just been reacting to one negative experience, so “we certainly shouldn’t assume that the KLPGA puts those expectations on [all] their players.” But personally, I see no reason to challenge Ahn’s stated motivations for leaving. As for the KLGPA, I turned to Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (2012) by Rachel Miyung Joo to learn more about its attitudes towards its female players, but unfortunately she doesn’t mention Ahn at all, focusing largely on Korean women in the (US)LGPA instead. So, while her descriptions of their Orientalist and sexualized depictions therein are fascinating, and her description of its 2002-2007 “Five Points of Celebrity” marketing drive (a.k.a. “Anti-butch Campaign”), “understood to place a large emphasis and personalities of the players rather than on their performance as athletes” (p. 153), sounds particularly relevant here, indeed we still can’t automatically assume the same of the KLPGA. But she does note that “[i]n the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements” (p. 156; see Le Coq Sportif example below). Also, her description of what happened to the Korean image of predecessor Pak Se-ri, “probably the most popular athlete in South Korea at the end of the twentieth century”, is quite telling. Because after Pak left for the LGPA in 1998:

Sources: Kaikaihanno (Pak Se-ri, 1998), Yonhap (Ahn Sun-ju, 2014)

…there [was] a considerable shift in ideas of public sexuality in [South Korea]. This shift can be read in the changes to the public appearance of Pak Se-ri. She was transformed from a dowdy twenty-something golfer at her debut to the tidy player of today through a national makeover. The masculinity of Pak—her broad shoulders, strong legs, dark tan, baggy shorts, and flat short hair covered with ill-fitting baseball caps—did not detract from her initial national fame….[But] [o]ver the years, her public image has been transformed through a wardrobe redo and the use of heavy makeup. She is often featured in women’s magazines in tailored designer sportswear with highly stylized hair and makeup. In the photos, she strikes poses that emphasize her “feminine side”—taking a stroll in the wood, relaxing on a couch, playing with her dogs, or cooking in her kitchen. The transformation of a tomboyish national icon to the womanly figure of today demonstrates that, although femininity was not a requisite for her national importance, she was normalized into public femininity through the transnational circuit of images of professional golf.

“In the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements.” One of many long, lingering shots of conventionally-attractive, (now) JLPGA player Lee Bo-mee in a 2016 Le Coq Sportif commercial. Source: YouTube.

In contrast, Kim Yuna shares the body type and looks of K-pop girl-group members, who are specifically chosen for their ensuing, very narrowly-defined suitability for advertising. So it comes as no surprise that, like them, the vast majority of her numerous endorsements appear to be for beauty and dieting-related products.

To note that isn’t to diminish her considerable achievements and hard work. But it’s entirely possible she would never have become such a national icon if her body didn’t fit the part. As was the case with Yi So-yeon, Korea’s first astronaut, whose treatment by netizens and the media was really quite shocking.

Finally, just for the record, the point about her retirement was actually made by Nathan, but I agreed. Also, it’ll be interesting to see to what extent the Garlic Girls’ endorsements will challenge all these body-standards for female athletes. But it’s time to move onto the (much shorter) second article.

Next, again for Nathan, a few days later I was quoted in “Behind Olympic death threats, a South Korean fan culture that takes speed skating seriously“,

It doesn’t help that the South Korean sense of nationalism also “stresses Koreanness through having Korean ‘blood,'” said James Turnbull, a writer and speaker on Korean culture. “This means many Koreans react the way they do because they feel like a member of their ‘family’ has been cheated.”

Admittedly, that last possibly sounds a little patronizing coming from a foreign observer. So I would have preferred Nathan had written that it was actually my Korean friend Ji-eun that said that, attempting to explain things after I expressed my mystification at the Korean (over)reaction to the Apolo Ohno controversy in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games—which included passers-by harassing my coworkers on the streets of (normally very pleasant and friendly) Jinju. But no matter: whoever points it out, bloodlines-based nationalism is very much a thing in Korea (and Japan), and has led to such oddities as numerous apologies for and a national sense of guilt and shame over the actions of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho in 2007, despite his having left South Korea at the age of 8 and absolutely no-one in the US considering him “Korean.”

Left: highly-recommended further reading (source: Stanford University Press). Right: “A BBC poll from 2016 of various countries, asking what the most important factor in self identity was. South Korea has the highest proportion given for ‘race or culture – 25%” (source: BBC via Wikipedia).

Next up, a week later, I was quoted by Diane Jean in “En Corée du Sud, les femmes n’ont pas d’autre choix que d’être belles” (“In South Korea, women have no choice but to be beautiful”) for ChEEK Magazine. As you can see it’s all in French, so here’s a bad translation of my contribution:

“Of course these pressures are not unique to Korea, they are found elsewhere,” says James Turnbull, a specialist in feminism and pop culture in Korea. But without having lived here, where, on a daily basis, your beautician, your teachers, your parents, your colleagues, your bosses constantly repeat to you that you have to go on a diet […], we can not realize how these pressures are particularly harsh for Korean women. “

That Korean women face body image issues will come as a surprise to nobody. But it can be difficult to convey their intensity, especially to overseas observers who are constantly bombarded with negative body image messages themselves. Probably most effective then, is to hear from the victims in person, especially overseas Koreans who frequently express their shock at the level of body-shaming they experience here compared to in their home countries. Listen to Korean-American Ji Eun-gyeong for instance, writing for Ilda South Korean Feminist Journal:

In contrast to the casual attire and revealing clothing of some of the Korean American women in the student program, Korean female students were uniformly slim, wore formal clothing to school, and always had perfectly groomed hair and makeup. I remember gawking at the female students wearing formal suits and heels at nearby Ewha University, something that was unheard of at schools in the US, where it was perfectly acceptable to go to school wearing pyjamas and looking like you rolled out of bed.

In comparison to these women, I was fatter, did not know how to put on makeup “properly,” and was relatively not well-groomed. The physical standards for Korean women were a palpable social pressure on me and the Korean American women, and despite our best efforts to “fit in,” we always fell short. We did not have the skills, energy, or time to put on full makeup, to dress formally for school everyday, nor did we have the slim body types that almost everyone around us seemed to have. Most importantly, we were not “well-behaved” women.

As Korean American women, we were unused to having so many restrictions on our movement and our bodies. One student in my exchange program was slapped for smoking in public, and another was yelled out for having lightly dyed hair. Others were reprimanded for wearing revealing or messy clothing, such as shorts with “holes” in them (shredded shorts). We talked too loudly and laughed too hard. Because of these and the daily judgments about our physical appearance that left us lacking, most of the women in our program felt a demoralized and degraded while we were in Korea. The policing of our bodies was limited to Korean Americans, because we were being compared to Korean women, while the foreign women were help up to different standards.

In contrast, the Korean American men in our program had less restrictions on their dress or their physical appearance. While they were subject to some pressures – ie, having clean-cut haircuts and not being able to wearing shorts – they were subject to less judgment about their bodies than the foreign women.

Admittedly she was writing about 1994, but you don’t need me to tell you that very, very little has changed for the next generation. That is also indicated by the following damning statistics, collected in these slides for my lecture on body image for my “Gender in South Korea” course at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies last summer:

Statistic from “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women” by Tess Hellgren (2012).
Statistic from: “18% of Young Women Found to Be Underweight“, anonymous, The Chosun Ilbo (2014).
(Link to Georgia Hanias’s 2012 Marie Claire article in the slide, plus another one to an interesting critique.)

Finally, there was one more interview after that, but I was completely edited out of the article when it was finally published last week. I’ll wisely spare you my rant though, only mentioning it as a final excuse for the delay in posting. So too, that I also did a long podcast interview in March, which will hopefully be coming out in the next couple of months.

Any thoughts? About any of the articles? :)

Related Posts:

If You Don’t Have Kim Yuna’s Vital Statistics, Your Body Sucks and You Will Totally Die Alone

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 12)
kim-yuna-golden-ratio-body-s-line-tweet(Source: @niiaebi)

Did I tell you how much I love following Korean feminism on twitter? I’m completely addicted now. Add some sexual attraction to the buzz, thanks to my becoming acquainted with a self-professed loud and proud “fertile woman” (a.k.a. 나는 가임여성 이다/@niiaebi), and my body was all set to receive one powerful hit last week:

좆나 크리피하고 토악질나온다 무슨 재단사세요? 정육점 고기 품평하세요? 하 좆팔 김연아 선수는 외국에서 태어나셔야했다

“That [picture below] is so fucking creepy, I feel like throwing up. Are you a tailor or what? Are you judging her body parts like cuts of meat? Fucking hilarious. If only Kim Yuna* had been born in a foreign country. [Because they wouldn’t write about her like that there.]”

I know, right? If only I wasn’t already married. But she wasn’t finished yet:

진짜 국적이 죄다 국적이 죄야. 대체 왜 사람을 고기처럼 분석해놓는 거냐. 그리고 개쳐웃긴 점이 냄져몸은 ^절대^ 이렇게 상세히 나누고 재단하는 꼴 살면서 단 한번도 못봤음. 여성을 사람으로 안보고 인형으로 본단 걸 아주 당당하게 기사로 냈지요?

“It’s her nationality that is the real crime. Why on earth was she measured like meat? But the funniest thing is that I’ve never seen men’s bodies measured like this. Not even once in my life. The fact that this is from a news article clearly shows women are seen as dolls. Is the author proud of this article?”

I was so mesmerized, I kim-yu-na-golden-ratio-s-line-bodycouldn’t have agreed more. But then I glanced again at the images of Kim Yuna skating, and suddenly sobered up: didn’t she retire 3 years ago?

She did. It turned out, the left image came from a 7 year-old Chosun Ilbo article, which was also translated into English. And both are as vacuous as they are problematic. Rather than digging them up again, I began coquettishly tweeting back to @niiaebi, she should have burned them and buried the ashes. Lest they grow back again in the form of some mammoth blogpost somewhere.

Then I noticed that there was one crucial omission in the English translation, and it was too late.

Also, perhaps remembering that objects of your affection are not usually impressed if you have no opinion of your own and simply agree with everything they say, later I realized the articles weren’t problematic for the reasons @niiaebi mentioned, but were for exciting new ones that you will totally want to learn about.

I shouldn’t come on too strong though. So, let’s warm up to those with that omission first. It’s in the second paragraph:

서양인 못지않은 김연아의 ‘황금 몸매’의 가장 큰 특징은 긴 팔과 다리다. 1m64의 키에 체중 47㎏인 김연아의 하체 길이(허리~복사뼈)는 96㎝. 목 아래에서부터 허리까지 잰 상체 길이(50㎝)의 두 배에 가깝다. 패션 스타일리스트 김성일씨는 “일반인은 상·하체 비율이 4.5대 5.5만 돼도 다리가 긴 편에 속한다”며 “이렇게 다리가 긴 덕분에 똑같이 회전을 해도 회전이 크고 우아해 보이는 것”이라고 말했다.

In the English version:

Standing 164 cm tall and weighing 47 kg, Kim’s lower body from waist to the ankle bone measures 96 cm, almost double the length of her torso, which is 50 cm. Fashion stylist Kim Seong-il said, “With normal people, if the ratio of the upper and the lower body is 4.5:5.5, we consider them long-legged. Because of her long legs, Kim’s jumps look bigger and more elegant.”

It’s the first line that’s missing:

서양인 못지않은 김연아의 ‘황금 몸매’의 가장 큰 특징은 긴 팔과 다리다

“The most notable trait of her ‘golden [ratio] body’ is her long limbs, just like those of a Westerner’s.”

I admit that sounds pretty innocuous in itself. People use races and ethnicities as shorthand for body types and features all the time. In this case, author Jeong Sae-yeong is alluding to the common knowledge that Westerners are taller and have longer limbs than Koreans, and that Western women have larger breasts too.

But journalists shouldn’t be using such lazy stereotypes. This binary hinders more than it helps understanding, and can even lead to genuine harm.

For a start, because in practice “Westerners” usually only means “Caucasians.” Next, because Caucasians alone have a wide range of body types and sizes. Also, because even if the comparison was once broadly true, changes in Korean health and diets meant it was already out of date in 2010 (let alone in 2017).

Why do such obvious things need to be said? To someone purporting to explain bodies to us?

Continuing to position a fundamentally flawed representation of one race as the Occidental opposite of all Koreans though, does justify providing a very narrow range of small clothing sizes to the latter. It places the onus on consumers to fit their bodies to the clothes, rather than vice-versa.

This makes its absence in the English version of the article all the more glaring. Why did the anonymous translator not include it? Did they feel non-Koreans wouldn’t be interested? Did they feel embarrassed by it at all?

We can only speculate. But probably there is no grand conspiracy really: the same newspaper wasn’t shy in talking in terms of Western bodies in other English articles back then. It’s still depressingly common in the media today too. Alas, the very sexy quotes from Japanese sociologist Yoshio Sugimoto I planned to give, about the agendas of core subcultural groups dominating the mass media and intercultural-transactions, will have to wait for a more opportune time.

Yet the fact remains, English readers weren’t being given the full story. It’s something to chew on.

meet-the-meat(Sources: left; right)

Moving on to the rest of the article and the image, to my surprise my issue with them was less with the fact that Kim Yuna’s body parts are presented like slabs of meat, as with ice-skating itself.

It’s all Camille Paglia’s fault:

Early on, I was in love with beauty. I don’t feel less because I’m in the presence of a beautiful person. I don’t go [imitates crying and dabbing tears], “Oh, I’ll never be that beautiful!” What a ridiculous attitude to take!–the Naomi Wolf attitude. When men look at sports, when they look at football, they don’t go [crying], “Oh, I’ll never be that fast, I’ll never be that strong!” When people look at Michelangelo’s David, do they commit suicide? No. See what I mean? When you see a strong person, a fast person, you go, “Wow! That is fabulous.” When you see a beautiful person: “How beautiful.” That’s what I’m bringing back to feminism. You go, “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!” Okay, now I’ll be charged with sexual harassment, probably. I won’t even be able to get out of the room!

We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. It is not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue….It is so provincial, feminism’s problem with beauty. We have got to get over this.

(Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays by Camille Paglia {1992}, pp.264-5; my emphases in bold.)

Which I take to mean that it is okay to exalt in magnificent bodies, whether for their looks, athletic prowess, or any number of reasons. It is okay to be curious about what it is exactly that sets them apart from everyone else in those regards, and to try to quantify that. So, when Jeong Sae-yeong writes (in the translation) that because “of [Yuna’s] long legs, Kim’s jumps look bigger and more elegant”, that because her arms are very long her “small arm movements look softer and more fluid”, and that “overdevelopment of muscles in certain parts of the body such as upper arms or thighs can make movements look stiff”? And when those certain parts of the body are all sized up in the graphic?

Then so what?

It pains me to say that, but, for all I know, those are all core tenets of figure-skating, and in that sense are no different to observing that, say, you need to be tall to play basketball well. If so, I can certainly disagree with those tenets and the values enshrined in them—short, toned people can’t help but be stiff and inelegant on the rink?—and I can strongly dislike figure-skating for that reason (and also because I believe anything entirely reliant on subjective, corruptible judging can’t possibly be considered a sport). But the point remains that athletes will always be sized up like this. It’s human nature.

Indeed, as @lsjkhj0903 points out in a reply to @niiaebi, it’s done to male athletes too:

초멘나사이합니다..비슷하게 남자도 있더라구요…

“It is similar with men too…”

kim-yo-han(Source: @lsjkhj0903)

What many of you will have already noticed though, is that the graphic doesn’t just give a basic run-down of the lengths her long limbs. As pointed out in a reply by @lifejogipogi:

이건 정도의 차이가 너무 다르네요 김연아 선수는 ‘s라인’ ‘황금몸매’ 등 주관적인 평가가 한가득 들어있고 몸매 평가위주예요 김요한 선수 사진은 사무적이고 데이터의 일종 같은데 김연아 선수 사진은 가십거리 같네요

“No they are very different. The one with Kim Yuna is full of subjective comments, saying she has an ‘S-line’ and a ‘golden body figure’, and it is definitely about evaluating her body. Kim Yuhan’s case is more objective, and more like simple data. Yuna Kim’s photo just looks like a tabloid article.”

It also provides her bust size, the implication being that only those within a very narrow range can be elegant. Which is absurd, as is finding significance in instances of the golden ratio in the human body. So too with her “well-balanced” waist and silhouette (you have to wonder why the rest of us don’t topple over), as discussed in the article. Which concludes:

Fashion stylist Han Hye-yeon said, “Unlike many other athletes, Kim has a slender, flexible body, so she has the natural ‘S’ curve when she’s performing.” Kim So-yeon, an executive at a modeling agency, said, “She has perfect body proportions for a fashion model.”

That is not okay. It’s quite a leap from discussing athlete’s bodies’ suitability for ice-skating, to positioning Kim Yuna as standard-bearer of a body image ideal for everyone else. Particularly when she’s been hawking diet and beauty-related products for her entire career.

kim-yuna-light-up-protein(Source: YouTube)

I don’t bemoan her for that necessarily, as it’s a rare female celebrity in Korea that has the luxury of being able to say no to advertising offers; although she’s certainly rich enough to reject them now, especially those that make dubious links to their products and her athletic prowess. I’ve also recently learned from reading Autumn Whitefield-Modrano’s new book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (2016) about how having very specific statistics for the “perfect” body can even be liberating, in the sense that once you realize you can’t have something, you free yourself from trying (like with my accepting my being bald for instance, which I learned from a friend who’d accepted her own small breasts.)

I remain really struck though, at how this whole notion of ever obtaining such a specific combination of such perfect vital statistics so closely resembles that of a competition in the United States 100 years ago, fought over which college’s female students most closely resembled the Venus de Milo. Tens of thousands of women would be measured for it, and some women would come very close, even filing lawsuits to gain official recognition. But, crucially, none were ever universally accepted as the one and only, 20th century Venus de Milo. Because it’s almost like they were set to fail from the start:

The ridiculous thing about all this—well, one of the ridiculous things—is that these [measurements of women that came close] varied from one another by several inches. Not only that, but they were being compared to different standards, for there were multiple versions of the Venus de Milo’s measurements. Some physical culture practitioners quoted the statue’s bust-waist-hip stats as 39-26-38, while others believed she measured in at 34.75-28.5-36. The only stat everyone could agree on was the Venus de Milo’s height, which was set at 5-foot-4….

…times were changing anyhow—the flapper fashions newly in vogue looked best on tall, slender figures, and the Venus de Milo was starting to look a little too plump. In April 1923, the New York Times introduced the world to the “new Venus, whose proportions have been reduced by the athletic tendencies of the modern girl.” To be a true American modern Venus, women now “must be 5 feet 7 inches in height, a perfect 34, with 22-inch waist and 34-inch hips.” Furthermore, “[t]he ankle should measure 8 inches and the weight not exceed 110 pounds.”

And just like that, the beauty rules changed again. After decades of searching and dozens of contenders, America hadn’t found its perfect living, breathing reincarnation of Venus—because she didn’t, and couldn’t, exist.

Likewise, if they’re no longer presented in terms of their utility for her sport, then what is the purpose of providing Kim Yuna’s vital statistics, which is a combination that only she can ever have?

What else, but to remind women that their own bodies suck, and that they will probably die alone if they don’t at least try?

* For those of you that don’t know: “Kim Yuna” does read like “Kim Yoona” in English, but it’s a misspelling. Her Korean name, “김연아,” should be spelt “Kim Yeon-a,” and it actually sounds like “Kim Yon-a,” with the “on” in “yon” pronounced like the “on” in “on/off.”

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic series:

Korean Sociological Image #7: The Best Gillette Could Get?

Park Ji-sung Gillette Advertisement Photoshop( Source )

On the face of it, Park Ji-sung (박지성) is a very logical choice to endorse any given Korean company’s products or services. After all, he is easily Korea’s most popular male sports star at the moment, he (naturally) has a good body, and he is so successful that he has even published an autobiography already. Accordingly he has dozens of advertising deals to his name, and – to place his popularity into context – via his numerous Korean fans’ choices of credit cards he has more than financially compensated Manchester United for the loss of David Beckham for instance. Presumably then, Gillette Korea thought it was on to a good thing when it belatedly decided to join his bandwagon.

Nevertheless, while it’s not like I can claim to being all that photogenic myself, Park Ji-sung is actually a *cough* less than inspired choice, and at the very least advertisements like the above probably stretch consumers’ senses of disbelief just a little too far, if they don’t put off Korean men from using Gillette products altogether! If you haven’t already figured out why, then photos like this, this, this and this may help, and as Roboseyo points out, it’s not just because of her own sudden popularity that Korean companies started signing deals en masse with ice-skater Kim Yu-na (김연아) last year.

Update: Which brings up the side issue that Korean celebrities are notorious for being unconcerned about diluting their own personal brands, but so far this doesn’t appear to have been the case with either Park Ji-sung or Kim Yu-na.

Korean Zespri Kiwifruit AdvertisementOf course, photoshopping is by no means a recent phenomenon or unique to Korean advertisers, although it’s also true that extreme examples like Amore Pacific’s recent attempt to get women to aspire to a – by definition impossible – photoshopped “X-line” body ideal may well be very hard to find in other countries. With that in mind, I’m always interested in the extent to which Koreans are aware* of the level of photoshopping that occurs in advertisements and their opinions of it, but as I and many commenters have already talked about photoshopping on numerous occasions on the blog already (here’s a very small sample!), then rather than merely rehashing old points here, instead let me ask you how well you think Gillette’s ads will do, what your Korean friends, lovers and/or colleagues think of it, and what they think of photoshopping in general? Commenter Seamus Walsh’s female friends for instance, told him a little while ago that:

…they all were aware of the altering of photos that goes on…but that it is generally ignored because they know the models are attractive anyway, and that they look good after photoshopping, so that’s all that matters. Basically, despite knowing an image isn’t a true representation, they would rather have the altered image. I just wonder if this means that their ideals of beauty are based on the reality or the unnatural and unattainable?

Me too. But how representative are those opinions of average Koreans’ in turn? Please let me know!

* Not to imply that your average Korean consumer is any less intelligent than your average Western one with that statement, but having said that, on the other hand I’m not going to lie and pretend that somehow the Korean education system encourages the same level of critical thinking either.

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

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