Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source: Remark Vill.
If I was advertising literally anything to university students, “Don’t Worry Mom!” would probably be the very last headline I’d use. But until recently, this ad for Remark Vill serviced apartments really did tower over the Pukyong and Kyungsung University district, a small but popular nightlife district in Busan.
Its paternalism rankled immediately. In particular, it had the exact opposite message to this campaign by the accomodation-finding app Zigbang, which trumpeted the independence and sexual freedom for women which comes with leaving home. And it just feels odd for any real estate service to target potential customers’ parents, rather than the customers themselves.
Upon further reflection however…it still rankled. Because as can be better seen in the full version, she’s also in one of the numerous, surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable poses almost only ever seen on women in ads. For sure, that’s hardly something to break the pitchforks out for in itself. Yet, as sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in Gender Advertisements (1979), such nuances do subtly diminish the women involved. As whereas men’s usually more natural poses render them literally much more ready for action, and are thereby more authoritative looking, actor Im Se-mi above would have to uncross her legs in order to be able to do, well, anything. Or in Goffman’s own words about the similar ‘bashful knee bend,’ her pose “can be read as a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, [as] the position adds a moment to any effort to flight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.”
Pose like Lee Min-jung on the left, and it’s difficult even just to keep your balance. Stand more naturally like Gong Yoo instead, and you’re much quicker to spring into action.
But one should pause after somehow arriving at phrases like “flight or flee” after pondering a sweet, innocuous-looking ad. Also, Korean mothers (and fathers) have good reason to be concerned about their daughters’ safety when living alone. The 2016 Gangnam murder case, in which a 23 year-old woman was stabbed to death in a public toilet for simply being a woman, is still very fresh in people’s minds. Korea’s spycam epidemic continues unabated, which is a big concern for women when using motels and public toilets. In May 2019, a security video shows a woman literally only just avoiding a stalker forcing himself into her apartment as she closed the door behind her. Moreover, before the video went viral, he was originally only going to be charged with trespassing, characteristic of a justice system widely considered to be very dismissive of women’s sexual harassment and violence claims.
Naturally, daughters themselves are worried about the safety of their accommodation too. According to a recent study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that surveyed 3,000 single-person households, 11.2 percent of female respondents cited safety as the number one difficulty living alone, against 0.8 percent of men. Also, according to a research paper by Kang Ji-hyun, a professor of criminology at the University of Ulsan, young women living alone are more than 11 times more likely to suffer from home invasion than men. Consequently, according to D. M. Park at The Korea Bizwire, they “have to pay relatively high housing costs [compared to men] as they prefer houses in safe locations and with security facilities, as well as additional money for anti-crime goods.” This difference is ignored in Korean social welfare and housing policies, as is the reality that women also make less money than men to pay those extra costs. One woman interviewed for the article described it as yet another ‘pink tax’ for women, being an example of the extra money women sometimes have to pay for a swathe of services and consumer items that men don’t, including what they have to put into grooming for their jobs.
The Daeyeon Remark Vill apartments advertised are symbolic of this: while the buildings won a special prize for their security features upon completion in 2017, nowhere on the Remark Vill website are the rental prices of any of their apartments in Korea listed—suggesting that they’re very expensive indeed (and, despite the area, unlikely to be actually aimed at university students). Moreover, given the dire job circumstances of Koreans in the late-20s and early-30s at the moment, even 32 year-olds like Im Se-mi might require parental assistance to live there. Who could possibly gripe about an ad then, that appeals to both potential female tenants and their parents?
A couple of subway stops from the Daeyeon Remark Vill apartment buildings, an alleyway for “women to go home safely” that is “specially patrolled by police.” It’s the first I’ve ever encountered in Korea, but likely only because I have the male privilege of never needing to look for them. How common are they?
But I was reluctant to let this one go. I would have loved to have deferred to what Korean women thought of the ad, if only I could have found any opinions they’d offered. In their absence, I had to rely on my gut. And that told me that if something instantly rankles, there’s usually a good reason for it.
After all, recall how odd “Don’t Worry Mom!” sounded?
Just because daughters would share parents’ concerns about their safety, doesn’t necessarily mean the ad should be targeted towards the latter. Someone—a single copywriter perhaps, or maybe a whole creative team—made a conscious decision to do so. And, sure enough, even if this particular ad is relatively harmless, just a cursory investigation shows the campaign as a whole is rife with traditional gender stereotypes.
The smoking gun comes from the Remark Vill homepage itself. On it, there are four themed commercials available to watch. Two of them—about the gym facilities and various safety measures, conveniences, and business services available to tenants respectively—you don’t need my translations for. The “Mom’s Relief” one below however, is simultaneously sweet and cringey, for you sense that you would never have a 32 year-old man portrayed in the same manner. And under that, the “Teasing” one, which—spoilers!—suggests that the formerly virginal daughter is now free to invite male guests for casual sex.
Unless you’re targeting parents like myself, who is very cool with that, it’s probably wise not to run a campaign tugging at parents’ heartstrings, only to present those parents who do visit your website with a reminder of how much wild sex your daughter will soon be having in your absence. Indeed, at your expense too.
Maybe, just maybe, the “Don’t Worry Mom!” campaign was ill-conceived in more ways than one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the “Mom’s Relief” commercial:
And my translation of the captions:
Mom, you’re bringing that up again?
I’m taking care of things myself now!
I can get lightbulbs changed if I need to, and the toilet unblocked too.
I don’t need to call Dad!
In fairness, of course there are many young people in any country who have to rely on others for simple household tasks; even back in 2009, when the single-household rate was much lower, there was already a plethora of such services available in Korea. My experience of the reporting on the trend, however, is that it tends to stress the alleged lack of adulting by female customers. And as for advertising, if the fact that a 32 year-old not knowing how to change a lightbulb or unblock a toilet doesn’t strike you as embarrassing enough—and who still doesn’t know after leaving home, the Remark Vill staff replacing the role of her long-suffering father—I invite you to consider how unlikely and unnatural-seeming it would be to have a male actor in Im Se-mi’s place.
The next screenshots reveal she gets her laundry and cleaning done by others too. Nothing wrong with that, and great if you can afford it, but—if she can’t even change a lightbulb, could she do those herself either? You really have to wonder.
(Ironically, earlier posts from the Remark Vill Facebook page actually include tips for such things as unblocking toilets by yourself—which just goes to show how much of a step backward this particular campaign is.)
There are copying and fax services available on the first floor.
I don’t need to go out at night.
If I want, there’s even cleaning or laundry services.
I can even borrow an umbrella when it’s raining.
But still, please come over often.
They don’t make kimchi for me here…
[You’ll come] Right?
I’ve got to admit, that’s pretty damn cute. Then I remember…
And on that note, on with the “Teasing” commercial:
And the captions:
It’s so good to be home!
What do you think? It’s good, right?
This is the first time I’ve had a man come over.
There is a state of the art security system in this building…
[…So] No unwanted visitors can come in [the building].
The building staff receive everything for me, like mail and deliveries.
If something dangerous happens…
A quick response from the security office is just a phone call away.
From the Remark Vill Facebook page, a highlight of that safe pick-up and delivery system (which can also be seen in the “Features and Services” video, as can real-time monitoring of one’s parking space):
Wireless delivery system. A smart delivery system makes this a very safe place to live alone.
There’s CCTV, and a tight security system overseeing everyone that enters the building.
[So] I don’t need a boyfriend!
Why are you looking like that?
You like me??
Wake up! I’ve never thought of you as more than a friend.
(No caption) Do you want to Netflix and Chill?
Technically, that the male viewer is the first to come to her apartment may only mean precisely that. But the hint of previous inexperience, combined with the desire suddenly awakened by his presence, sounds very familiar:
From Stephen Epstein’s and my chapter “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop” in the Korean Popular Culture Reader (2014), alas, K-pop ages very quickly. Most of the 100 songs we analyzed for it, the young women of 2020 would only have vague memories of hearing as girls.
Perhaps it’s time Remark Vill realized they’ve grown up now too?
- Korean Sociological Image #86: Sex and the Single Korean (Household)
- Korean Sociological Image #76: Gendered Innocence and “The Nation’s First Love”
- Women’s Typical Poses in Advertisements: A Pain in the Neck?
- Gender, Consumerism, & Advertising: The Sociological Rabbit Hole
- Korean Sociological Image #48: The Male Gaze
- Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements
- Korean Sociological Image #87: Normalizing Interracial Relationships
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)