“With Throbbing Heart and Trembling Hands, the Groom Undresses the Waiting Bride, to Unveil the Mystery”

Rare, 1970s English-language alcohol commercial for overseas audiences is a cringeworthy example of gendered self-Orientalism*

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

Featuring actors Yu Ji-in and Shin Yeong-il, it’s her timidity that strikes me most about this 1975 commercial for Jinro ginseng wine. For in that era of draconian but well-publicized birthrate-reduction policies, monthly pill commercials were widely seen in cinemas alongside those for alcohol. And they weren’t exactly known for their blushing brides:

Probably, the explanation is that the wine commercial was never actually seen by domestic audiences. It’s also unlikely there’s anything deeper to its sexual exotification of Korea, and its presenting of ginseng wine as the means to help relax nervous virginal women on their wedding nights, other than an unimaginative creative team stuck with trying to advertise an obscure drink to foreign audiences.

But which foreign audience exactly? Why, despite the contents of the voiceover, show the bride as being the most in need of relaxing? Why have Korean advertisers been so reluctant for the last 50 years to run their English copy and concepts by native speakers first, especially for ads exclusively aimed at them?

Alas, the answers will have to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, the commercial remains an interesting, albeit slightly distasteful footnote in Korea’s history of portraying itself to outsiders, particularly considering the government was actively promoting sex tourism to Japanese trade officials and businessmen at the same time. So, for readers’ interest, and to ensure the information is not lost, I’ve also included my translation of a 1974 article I have been able to find about Jinro’s attempts to sell the drink overseas, and would be grateful if any readers could add any further links or background (meanwhile, the Jinro website itself notes that the company’s first export was a shipment of soju to Korean soldiers in Vietnam in 1968):

진로 인삼주 본격개발 Jinro Begins Full-scale Development of Ginseng Wine

올수출목표 1백만불낙관 Optimistic Export Target Set at 1 Million Dollars

February 11, 1974, Maeil Business News Korea

소주메이커인 진로주조(대표 장학엽)는 일본산토린과 기술제휴를 맺은데이어「런던드라이진」과도 가계약을맺는등 본격적인 인삼주개발에 박차를가하고 주류수출에 밝은전망을 보여주고 있다.

Soju maker Jinro Brewery (CEO: Jang Hak-yeob) has signed a contract for an alcohol-technology sharing alliance with Santorin, Japan, and a provisional contact with a UK maker of ‘London Dry Gin.’ This is expected to spur the development of ginseng wine and brighten prospects for the exporting of alcoholic beverages.

11일 동사에의하면 지난해 인삼주30만달러를 수출한데이어 올해엔 1백만달러를 목표로 세워놓고 이를위해 재래식 인삼주외에도 새로운 신제품을개발,생산키로 했다.

On the 11th, the company reported that it had exported 300,000 dollars of ginseng wine last year, and had set a goal of exporting 1 million dollars this year. To this end, it decided to develop and produce new products in addition to conventional ginseng wines.

이에따라 진로주조는 작년12월 일본의 산토린과 기술제휴를 맺었고 오는2월안으로 위스키베이스 인삼주12만달러를 수출할 예정이고 연내 40만달러를계획하고 있다.

Accordingly, Jinro Brewery made an alcohol-technology sharing agreement with Santorin of Japan in December of last year, and plans to have exported $120,000 of whiskey-based ginseng wine by February and $400,000 by the end of this year.

또「런던드라이진」과는 가계약을 체결,4월에 진베이스인삼주를 생산,10만달러어치를「유럽」및 동남아시장에 수출하기로했다.

In addition, a provisional contract was signed with “London Dry Gin” to produce Gin-based ginseng wine from April, and to export 100,000 dollars worth to European and Southeast Asian markets.

이밖에 부녀층을위한 저도수인삼주(15도)는 시험이 끝나는대로 곧 시판키로했고 지난해 30만달러를기록했던 재래식 인삼주는50만달러를 잡고있다.

In addition, it was decided that a low-strength ginseng wine (15%) aimed at women would go on sale as soon as its testing phase was over. Meanwhile, exports of conventional ginseng liquor, which hit $300,000 last year, are on course for $500,000 this year.

그런데 진로는 현재 남아연방,「브라질」,「네덜런드」등 18개국과 거래하고있어 올수출목표1백만달러달성은 어렵지않을것으로내다보고 있다.

Jinro is currently trading with 18 countries, including South Africa, Brazil, and the Netherlands, and expects that it will not be difficult to achieve this export target of $1 million. (End.)

“Jinro ad, published in The Korea Times, Nov. 1, 1974.” Source: Korea Times Archives (used with permission).

*UPDATE: In a thread in the Critical Korean Studies Facebook group, I was asked what I meant by “self-Orientalism.” Here’s my (slightly edited) reply:

…[I just used the term] to indicate that men and women tend to get orientalized in very different ways, whether by themselves or others, and that this is an example of that.

First, “self-Orientalism” refers to how in this case it’s Koreans orientalizing themselves—”…the exotic East”, “…profound love and mystery unique to Korea” etc.—rather than Westerners doing it to them. The term only occurred to me while writing, but I quickly confirmed that it’s a concept that’s already been well covered by scholars, and that that’s the term they use for it. (Here’s one article about a recent Japanese example you may find interesting).

As for “gendered,” I admit that’s much vaguer….Specifically, I chose it because I was reminded of Scott Burgeson’s “Gendered Multiculturalism,” by which I took to mean a gender lens was absolutely necessary to understand Korean multiculturalism, because men and women were treated and considered so differently by it (marriages to “foreign brides” warmly encouraged, but relationships with foreign men discouraged etc.). Similarly, although I admit this isn’t a very strong example of it, the woman(‘s body) is explicitly described as a “mystery” in the commercial, and it’s difficult not to further associate that with the exoticism and mystery of Korea mentioned in the same breath. In that vein, mysterious and exotic women—and the promise of their sexual availability—have indeed been a strong component of the advertising of Korea to non-Koreans since at least the 1920s, by Koreans and non-Koreans alike. In contrast, selling the possibility of sex with Korean men probably didn’t really begin in earnest until the first Korean Wave with the Bae Yong-joon mania, and hence gender (or technically, biological sex) is an important thing to bear in mind when studying it.

I hope that clears things up! :)

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

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Ladies: Stay Slim with Soju?

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement Mirror

Faced with the unenviable task of somehow making soju cool, Jinro (진로) did a pretty good job with the launching of its new “J” (제이) brand back in October, but its latest efforts to associate the brand with losing weight may well require too big a suspension of disbelief from most consumers!

Or at least, that was my first gut reaction. But then if faced with a choice of two equally priced and similar brands of any strong alcohol, probably I would indeed choose the slightly weaker one: I am slightly overweight, and it’s not like 5 per cent less alcohol wouldn’t still have the desired effect on me. How about you?

As you’ll soon see though, it’s not that which made me first notice the ad:

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Look familiar? To put it mildly, commercials featuring female celebrities lounging around in their underwear aren’t exactly common on Korean television, and so I don’t think the similarities with this advertisement with Han Ji-hye (한지혜) from March – actually, the only other example – are any coincidence. Here, the actress and model featured is Shin Min-a (신민아), as it happens in the entertainment news a great deal as I write this for her first screen kiss with Won bin (원빈), and as you can probably tell, the idea is that a 1 per cent reduction in alcohol content (from 19.5 to 18.5) somehow results in the following:

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement minus 1inch

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement minus 1kg

Shin Min-a Soju Advertisement minus 1cm

Admittedly I don’t like high heels in the first place, but that last is probably overdoing it, as I can’t see how drinking less alcohol than normal somehow makes you taller as well as thinner? Regardless, below is a accompanying poster for the new, weaker soju that you may have seen around, and for the sake of adding to my conversation with commentator Seamus about Koreans’ (relative) lack of awareness of the amount of photoshopping in everyday advertisements and magazine images, would be grateful if you could show it to your Korean friends, students, colleagues, and/or lovers and so on: among other things, do they think Min-a’s legs have been lengthened and made thinner in it or not?

Update: Sorry, but in hindsight it was sloppy and quite strange of me to write about this ad without translating the voiceover first, and if I had then what I wrote above would have been quite different:

1kg 빠져도, 다른데?

If you lose 1kg, are you different?

1인치만 줄어도, 좋은데

[Even] if you shorten your skirt by only one inch, it looks better.

1cm만 낮아도, 편한데

[Even] if you reduce the length of your high heels by only 1 cm, they’re more comfortable.

그리고 1도만 더 부드러워져도

처음보다 1도 더 부드럽다

And also if you soften [soju] by only one degree, it’s one degree softer from the first sip.

18.5도 진로제이

진로제이처럼 더 부드러워지세요

18.5% Alcohol Jinro J

Like Jinro, please make your life a little softer.

Shin Min-a Jinro Soju Advertisement

Placing the ad in a wider perspective, as much as 90 per cent of all alcohol consumed in Korea is soju, and Jinro sells 50 per cent of that, so this latest marketing drive may well reflect the saturation of the market more than anything else (no pun intended). In such circumstances, a company can either start selling in new markets or repackage its product in different varieties if it wants to increase profits (or to ensure that they don’t decrease: examples like this are how I learned about the Marxian “inevitable tendency of the rate of profit to fall” at university), a good example of which is the number of different Coca-cola drinks available and their (very very) rough correlation with an economy’s level of capitalistic development and competition, as evidenced by, say, the precisely two available in New Zealand when I entered university in the mid-1990s against the plethora available in the US decades earlier.

And so with equivalents in other Northeast-Asian countries, and little appeal outside of the region, diversification is probably the most logical path for soju producers. True, the above ads in particular reflect a desire to create a new market before reaching that stage – only 30 per cent of soju drinkers are women – but given that…

The word soju to most Korean women produces something approaching a mild panic – an explosive squeal of disgust, a deeply pained expression, head shaking, hand waving. That’s not to say they don’t drink it. It’s just they don’t seem particularly like it, even as they pour it down their throats (source).

…then I have my doubts as to whether that figure will ever go up to 50 per cent. Here’s hoping that the Korean alcohol industry is indeed on the verge of offering more choices and variety then!

Update: Here is a related graphic showing decreases in soju’s alcohol strength over time. For more information (in Korean), see here.

Soju's Strength Decreasing Over Time

(Image Sources: first, second-fourth, fifth, last)

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