International Magazines in Korea: A Cultural Invasion? (Part 1)

(Sources: left, right)

With covers like these, it’s easy to overestimate the “Westernizing” effects international magazines have on modest Korean readers. Especially by those who resent such changes.

Say, those who have ever called someone a “beanpaste girl” (dwengjangnyeo; 된장녀) for instance, a derogatory term for young women that supposedly spend beyond their means in pursuit of a Sex and the City lifestyle. But which in practice they can be called for doing no more than simply buying Starbucks coffee, nice clothes, or foreign food.

When such decadent women want to do some reading while sipping their frappuccinos though, until recently they were much more likely to be seen behind an international women’s magazine than a purely Korean one. That wasn’t just confirmation bias by their accusers.

Why are they so popular? And why, despite that, are they still not quite as big an influence as they may appear? Let’s answer the first question in this post and Part 2, and the second in Part 3 after that.

(Sources: left, right)

There are three reasons they are so popular. First, a practical one. Consider why they were once able to justify more expensive ad rates than Korean competitors, despite having much lower circulations (Sook & Firth, 2006; see the end of the post for references):

According to an interview with a media expert in an ad agency (June, 2004), international magazines justify [them] by claiming that they use modern printing techniques, higher quality paper, glossy covers, and more sophisticated advertising techniques…

I doubt that this difference in quality still applies in 2012. But when it did, it would have quite literally added some gloss to their preexisting exotic appeal. So much so, that the combination meant that international magazines:

…[could] deliver the ‘right target’ to advertisers. Instead of housewives, the major target audience of international magazines is single women. They are a segment who is interested in fashion and beauty and who possess disposable income.

Having different targets meant different content, which is the third and the most important source of their greater popularity, to be covered in Part 2. Indeed, jumping ahead, the greatest impact of international magazines has been that: a) most domestic competitors have likewise sexed-up their own content in order to better appeal to spendthrift single women; and b) a slew of wholly Korean magazines exclusively aimed at them have also appeared (e.g. Singles/싱글즈, not quite the symbol of Western depravity it may at first appear). And in light of that, it behooves me to point out that this series of posts is based on 5 and 6 year-old sources using 8 year-old data, and to reiterate that international magazines may actually no longer be the preferred choice of single Korean women.

But still: regardless of which are the more popular now, and well before consumers can get to grips with content like “His First Sex”, first they have to be persuaded to open a magazine at all. And ever since the first Korean edition of Elle appeared in the Korean market 20 years ago, international magazines’ combination of exoticism and content aimed at young, hip Korean women (rather than fuddy-duddy ajummas) has been a powerful and enduring source of appeal.

Possibly, the sophisticated consumer in you balks at that at something so simplistic-sounding, especially if you’re one of those young, hip Korean women yourself. But then no matter how impervious to suggestion we all like to think we are, on occasion we’ve all bought magazines primarily for things as frivolous as: the feel of the glossy paper; the “edgy” photography; ego-boosting headlines (“2012 Is Your Year!); the rebellious frisson of purchasing something with a nude person on the cover in a crowded bookstore; and so on. Maybe, if we’re honest, as something to be seen with too, and/or because we feel it’s what our imagined selves ought to buy. For its possession can signify aspiration towards or membership in a social class or group (in sociological terms, a form of “objectified” and/or “institutionalized” cultural capital), even if only to ourselves.

Say, like my April 2000 copy of the New Zealand music and lifestyle magazine re:mix for instance:

Partially, I present that here to demonstrate that I’m not trying to distance myself from people who buy magazines for “shallow” reasons, a common failing of commentators on pop-culture. But primarily, I do so to admit my own intellectual baggage, and the possibility that I’m simply projecting. By all means, please call me out on that if you think so, and of course just because re:mix happened to trigger various cyberpunk-millennial fantasies in me at 24 – and, ahem, still does at 36 – doesn’t mean that all 24 or 36 year-old Korean women likewise buy international magazines simply to indulge in their own Occidentalist fantasies.

But then, surely some do. And whereas I knowingly made particularly strong associations between a magazine and a life I aspired to, the possibility of consumers making any associations at all is precisely what magazine editors are aiming towards, influencing all aspects of its production. As this marketer explains:

Consumers have gathered from the beginning of consumption. Auto enthusiasts, quilting bees, and Tupperware parties are early examples of the impulse. Many consumer groups share an affiliation that is based upon enthusiasm and knowledge of a specific consumption activity.

In fact, academics and consultants have recognized these groups and dubbed them “consumer tribes” – a term borrowed from anthropology, describing groups of people who are brought together not around something rational, such as a job, but around deeper, more profound needs, such as kinship, passion, and identity.

Moreover, just like advertisers are constantly inventing new role models for consumers to aspire to, all the better to sell them products that (supposedly) help them achieve that goal, it’s especially helpful for companies if those creations are centered around their brands (think of the stereotypical Apple or Harley Davidson consumer for instance). This is especially true for foreign companies entering a new overseas market for the first time, as (source, right):

…they seek a sense of familiarity and want control over their brands. In order to meet their demands, advertising agencies focus on “developing what are deemed to be more cost-effective global campaigns that circumvent national borders by creating more expensive global consumer tribes linked by lifestyle values or preferences rather than spatial location.” (source, quoted in Sook & Firth 2006; my emphasis)

Logic which certainly applied to magazine producers (quite explicitly so by Cosmo below!), and accordingly it’s via advertising that international magazines can be said to have had the greatest Westernizing effect on the Korean media, as will be discussed next week.

But before I do, let me leave you with a parallel from the real world, lest you’re still unconvinced about the importance of branding by magazines.

(Source)

To be precise, a parallel from an unidentified brand name shoe store in North England. Sociologist Steven Miles worked there for 10 weeks in the mid-1990s, posing as “an especially enthusiastic member of staff who was showing particular interest in customers and their purchases”, asking them numerous questions in order to (Miles, 1998):

…address the significance of consumption in their lives, most particularly in relation to the training shoes (sneakers) they were considering purchasing. The meanings with which these shoes were endowed, the role that these meanings played in the construction of personal identities, and the cultural context in which such meanings operated, were therefore the issues addressed….

The priority…was for the customer to discuss the role that training shoes (and often, as the conversation developed, other types of consumer goods) had in their lives, and what factors they believed influenced that role.

Sneakers may sound like a strange topic here, but recall that they were once considered so important by young people that they were prepared to mug and even kill for them, and Miles is very positive about the important, pro-active role one’s consumption choices can play in one’s identity, whether of sneakers of anything else.

However, it’s especially the next that has echoes in the purchase of magazines, by any age group (source, right):

…consider the atmosphere that the management actively seeks to promote in its stores. All branches of the sports store concerned are dominated by a large TV monitor overlooking the shop floor. This acts as a magnet for passing customers. British branches of the store often broadcast MTV…as far as the head office is concerned, this helps to create a relatively straightforward means of perpetuating a superficial feeling, on the part of the customer, of personal familiarity with what it is to experience this particular store.

And in particular (my emphasis):

What is also of interest in that paradoxically, measures are taken by the company to actively disguise the impersonal nature of the experience of shopping [there]….Though on the one hand the company’s training literature is entirely open about the importance of giving the consumer a common experience on entering the store in whatever country, on the other, any hint that efforts are being made to control such an experience are hidden from the customer’s actual perception of the shopping environment.

In the case of international magazines, these can be things as trivial as the choice of font and line-spacing, all designed to replicate the appearance and style of the overseas editions on which they’re based. Which may sound trivial, but next week I explain that, these days, Korean editions of international magazines have on average only 30% of “lift” material taken from those (down from 60% a decade ago), much of which has no more resemblance to the original articles and so on than the rough subject and the look. Or in other words, that “international” magazines sold here certainly have a foreign veneer, but are really a lot more Korean than they may seem.

Yet a veneer considered so enticing to consumers, that the Korean magazine Woman Sense/우먼센스, for instance, would change its cover title to English in 2009:

(Sources: left, right)

But all that will be discussed in Part 2 and 3. And on that note, apologies for the day’s delay with this post, the best I could do after having to get my modem changed 3 nights in a row last week(!) and thanks to all readers who tried to find copies of Sook’s and Firth’s papers below for me, and/or passed on other interesting related papers instead. As it turns out, while their download links on their citation pages here and here still aren’t working, if you do a search on the main allacademic page for, say, abstracts with the terms “Korea” and “magazines” in them, then you’ll get a list of search results with links that do work, and so you can click here and here for PDFs of them (or just ask me to send them).

Sources:

– Oh, Hyun Sook. and Frith, Katherine. “International Women’s Magazines and Transnational Advertising in South Korea” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany, Jun 16, 2006

– Oh, Hyun Sook. and Frith, Katherine. “Globalization and Localization in the Production Process of International Women’s Magazines in Korea” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2007

– Miles, Steven, “McDonaldization and the global sports store: constructing consumer meanings in a rationalized society” in Mark Alfino, John Caputo, and Robin Wynyard, ed.s, McDonaldization Revisited: critical essays on consumer culture, Praeger Westport, 1998, pp. 53-65.

Update, October 2013: Alas, I never did get around to writing Parts 2 and 3, feeling that they would require too much regurgitation of the source material. Instead, I wrote a single, much shorter article for the Autumn edition of Busan Haps.