Korean Advertising: Just Beautiful Women Holding Bottles?

Source: Wonder Nostalgia.

Some words of wisdom from Londoner Bruce Haines, currently head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide (my emphasis):

Q) What’s one big difference between advertising in Korea and the UK?

A) Celebrity endorsement – a huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people. Of course, it’s not uncommon in the West for stars to endorse a product, but generally the ad has a core idea and makes use of the celebrity endorsement to enhance the original concept. Not so in Korea. In its crudest form, Korean advertising degenerates to beautiful people holding a bottle. This is one of the things holding back the reputation of Korean advertising worldwide.  (10 Magazine)

At first, I thought “Korean advertising degenerates to celebrities holding a bottle” would have been more accurate myself. And regardless of the rather unflattering picture of Wondergirls singer Sohee (안소희) I chose above!^^

But Haines’s wording does have a nice ring to it. And however obvious his point may be to readers, I confess that it would never have occurred to me personally. Spending most of my adult life in Korea, he made me realize that I fail to notice Korean advertising’s peculiarities sometimes.

Which got me thinking about others. An obvious one, at least to a blogger forcing himself to include more images of men in his posts(!), was that although male celebrities are increasingly used to advertise alcohol in Korea, I really struggled to find any men endorsing a soft drink to illustrate this post with.

Yes: even after half an hour spent flicking through my old Korean advertising magazines, this was still the only one I could think of (although as I write this, this recent one for Powerade is coming to mind; but the actors are not celebrities and thanks to Seri for pointing out that it features the group Epik High). If anyone can think of any more, then please let me know.* But if not, then overwhelmingly having women in Korean soft drink commercials aimed at women seems to provides additional evidence for their preference for passive approaches to losing weight, in the sense that “drink this and get a body like mine” – rather than, say, “drink this as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle” – is the only narrative offered.

Source: unknown

Of course, soft drink commercials would say that. But the point is that this narrative of passivity is echoed in Korean advertising for a surprising array of products aimed at women.

In particular, as reader Seamus Walsh recently commented, it’s strange (and a pity) just how many Korean female singers get great bodies by dancing, only then to appear in advertisements claiming that it was all the result of drinking, say, a watery tea. A good illustration of which is the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스; above), who – to my great dismay – recently choose to endorse the diet company Juvis (쥬비스), a company I’d already criticized back in February.

And for alternatives? Again I’d struggle, as female celebrities advocating something involving mere exercise instead are unfortunately very rare, either personally or via endorsing related products like exercise equipment or sports clothing. BoA (보아) is one, but can anyone think of any others?

Lest you feel that I’m overemphasizing and/or exaggerating Korean differences regardless though, none of that is to deny that marketing to Korean women does indeed still share many similarities with that of Western countries for instance. And apologies for rehashing a topic already familiar to many readers, albeit from a new and – to me – rather unexpected angle.

But the differences are real, and as a final surprising demonstration of this, consider how gendered yogurt is in Western countries for instance, as demonstrated hilariously by American comedian Sarah Haskins below (see here for many more videos like it). As far as I can tell though, so far yogurt has yet to become “the official food of women” in Korea:

Is that difference because the idea of, well, “drinking” for health is so ingrained in the Korean psyche? Or perhaps for some other reason?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

p.s. For examples of what Korean advertising does have to offer the world, see my “Creative Korean Advertising” series here.

*As soon as my head hit the pillow, a few more examples came to mind, and I realized I needed to make a greater distinction between different kinds of soft drinks: advertisements for tea-drinks at least do indeed almost exclusively feature women, but those for sodas are more mixed, and – with the exception of laxatives – the more medicine-like a health-drink is marketed as, and to be found in a pharmacy, the more likely it is to feature and be intended for men. But I think the distinction I identify in the text is still generally true, and as further evidence for that I suggest thinking of what celebrities you know of that have regularly endorsed any form of soft-drink. I’d wager that while several women will come to mind, you’d still be hard-pressed to think of any men!