The Future is Now: Shin Min-a’s Dystopian Dust Mask Commercial Is Straight Out of Robocop 2

Estimated reading (+viewing) time: 3 (+4) minutes. Source: YouTube.

It’s become routine these days, trite even, to point out the many ways we are now living in the dystopias of once only imagined futures. So, when Shin Min-a’s endorsement of ETIQA dust masks came out back in February, reminding consumers there was no reason you couldn’t also look fashionable while trying to survive the climate apocalypse, I bit my tongue at the obvious resemblance to a spoof commercial from the Robocop 2 (1990) movie. Ten months later though? Again there’s much talk of fashionable ETIQA dust masks in the wake of the blinding, choking, toxic dust storms raging across the peninsula, yet a certain cyborg remains notable only for his absence. It seems this aging Generation X-er may in fact have been the only one to have made the connection.

Specifically, it was the Sunblock 5000 commercial that instantly came to mind. Because no need for the loss of the ozone layer to spoil getting that perfect tan, right?

And, with a nostalgic wink to fellow Gen X-ers, here it is in a compilation of some other spoof commercials from the first and second movie to give it some context:

In reality, without the ozone layer we’d all soon be dead; like much about the original movies (e.g., did you know the first was accidentally set in 2043?), with slightly more thought put into the commercial—as in having the voice-over claiming there was still slightly more than none of the ozone layer remaining—it would have been much more plausible. But at least, way back when I was 14, it did instill in me the first inklings of the sense that we were fiddling while Rome burned. And indeed, 30 years later, now we have a very real commercial that is in much in the same spirit.

What impact will this one have?

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

Shin Min-a Shows Us How to Pose Like a Woman


Yeah, I eat sitting cross-legged on my kitchen bench all the time too.

Fearing they hadn’t already made things quite awkward enough for Shin Min-a (신민아) in their latest entirely unconvincing “slice of regular life” photoshoot however, Giordano decided to go one better with this next shot. But which I have to admit, did at least get my attention:


Alas, for all her efforts in keeping that smile on her face despite her right leg cramping however,  So Ji-sub (소지섭) just doesn’t seem interested. But then probably I wouldn’t be either given how loose she seems to be with her affections: she’s so enraptured with Tiger JK, for instance, that’s she’s content to sit perched on a ladder to listen to him playing his guitar:


Unlike So Ji-sub and Jung Woo-sung (정우성), who choose to sit more comfortably when they listen to him themselves:


But then Giordano relented, finally allowing her to sit normally while listening to Jung Woo-sung. Heck, no wonder she looks so happy:

"Oppa, thanks for talking to the producer for me. My butt was killing me!" "You're welcome. But what happened to all the spaghetti sauce?"

Or that she has mixed feelings about appearing in the photoshoot in the first place. Which, in hindsight, is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen, as her purpose in it seems not to be so much to model the clothing herself, as to be a validation of the 3 men’s own clothing choices through her sexual interest in them.

Granted, the second shot should have made that obvious, but then the 3 men are widely considered among the sexiest male celebrities in Korea, about whom some female commentators on Omona! They Didn’t, for instance, had few inhibitions describing what they would like to do with them after seeing these pictures.


Lest anyone feel I’m reading too much into the photoshoot though, then I’ll finish here by inviting readers to imagine replacing Shin Min-a with a man in the first, third, and fifth images above (and Tiger JK and Jung Woo-sung with a woman in the third and fifth respectively), and would argue that it’s so difficult to – and even harder to find actual examples – because advertisements are overwhelmingly designed for a male gaze. And which, what with seeing 500-1000 a day of them, can’t help but have socialized even the most media-savvy of us into thinking that eating spaghetti while sitting cross-legged on a kitchen bench, wedged between a gas range and toaster, is a normal and appropriate thing for women to do.

For much more on the male gaze, and many more Korean examples, see the “Erving Goffman’s ‘Gender Advertisements’ in the Korean Context” section in my sidebar, especially the following posts:


Dating in Korea: A Request

제시카 고메즈( Sources: left, right )

Well, the good news is that I’ve been asked to write an article on dating in Korea for a local magazine. But I need your help!

To be specific, I’m going to discuss blogs about dating in Korea, of which a great many seemed to have been formed in the past year or so, either devoted entirely to that topic or mentioning it frequently. And of these, the vast majority seem to be by women, which leads me to the following questions that I can’t answer by myself:

1. Do you also think that there has been a big increase in their numbers? How about those written by women in general? Of course I’ve noticed a definite increase personally, but then I’ve gone from reading perhaps 5 blogs a day in 2007 (when I starting blogging) to subscribing to perhaps 80 today just for keeping up with news related to my niches and new material, so it may just be because I’m noticing them for the first time.

2. If your answer to either question is “yes” however, then what do you think are the reasons for the increase(s)?

– Greater numbers of women coming to work in Korea?

– Greater numbers of women staying for longer periods in Korea? After all, as recently as 2008 I would have said that perhaps 6-7 out of 10 foreigners coming to Korea were male, rising to 8 or even 9 out of 10 among those who had been in Korea over, say, 5 years, but now I’m not so sure. But would you agree with those figures for back then? And what do you think they are now?

– Changes in attitudes among Korean men toward dating and marrying Western women?

– Changes in attitudes among Western women dating and marrying Korean men?

– Some other reason(s)?

3. Do you think double standards exist when talking about dating? In particular, do you think that in the wake of “EnglishSpectrumGate”, male bloggers now feel much more inhibited about discussing their practical experiences of dating Koreans then female bloggers do? (very new arrivals to the Korea blogosphere, see here, here, and here for a quick synopsis of that)

On a final note, naturally I do already follow most blogs about dating in Korea, and many more intelligent ones that discuss it in passing; but I’m sure that there’s many that I’m unaware of, so please feel free to plug yours here! (and female bloggers too, for I simply don’t have the time to go through all 69 of them mentioned on this post by Chris in South Korea I’m afraid) Also, being married with 2 kids, and not having dated in nearly 10 years, then practically speaking at least there’s a great deal about the subject that I simply no longer know and/or is outdated,  so thank you to everyone in advance for filling me in.

p.s. Please, no inane comments about the choice of pictures; as you might expect in a society where the fact that local women are sometimes interested in foreign men is considered newsworthy, then there weren’t exactly very many to choose from!

Update: See here for the final article!


Korean Sociological Image #18: Sexualizing Caucasian Women

Sexist Korean advertisment caucasian women(Source: Busan Metro, 2 September 2009)

An image that simply begs commentary. But what is noteworthy about it exactly?

One thing is the tendency to use women’s bodies to showcase vehicles, well satirized here by replacing women with men in a similar photoshoot. But that is hardly unique to Korea, nor particularly strong here, whereas my general purpose with this series is to highlight interesting features of Korean society. So it’s the use of Caucasian women that I want to discuss here, as they’re so common in Korean advertising that sometimes there’s even more of them than Korean ones.

Before I began writing though, I had a thought: can’t Korean advertisers ever use non-Korean models without overanalysis, and — yes — perhaps implicit criticism from myself for doing so? No, of course they can. And, serendipitously, earlier this week Lisa at Sociological Images provided a fuller response to that charge, indeed an overall rationale that will inform this series in the future also. Here it is, but adapted to this blog:

korean-boy-looking-up-caucasian-womens-skirtI often present a single example of a cultural pattern. If you’re a member or observer of the relevant culture, that single example might ring true.  That is, you might recognize it as one manifestation of something you see “out there” all the time.

But it’s still just one example and it’s not very convincing to someone who is skeptical that the cultural pattern exists, especially if it’s subtle.

But one advantage of being a niche blogger is that posts on one’s subject(s) are cumulative.  I can even put up single manifestations of a cultural pattern and, even if it’s not very convincing at the time, the other evidence on the blog (and the evidence yet to come) may sway even some skeptics.

It is in that spirit that I offer the opening advertisement.

The choice of the models ethnicity may be random, but I am going to suggest that it is not…

And yet there are so many examples of Caucasians in Korean advertisements on this blog to provide, and so many factors involved in the choices of them, that to simply provide dozens of links at this point would be to confuse rather than enlighten readers. Therefore, my purpose with this post is to provide a single definitive guide to the subject that people can refer back to in future, not least myself!

To begin then, consider the empirical evidence for the disproportionate numbers of Caucasian women in Korean advertisements. Surprisingly given their seeming ubiquity though (something I’ll return to), there have actually been very few English-language studies of East Asian advertisements that have incorporated race as a main factor of their inquiries, and I am aware of only three that have done so of Korean ones. Here they are in chronological order of publication, with very brief summaries of their findings and links to the posts where I discuss them in more detail:

• Hovland, R. “Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements”, (Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, December 2005; open access copy no longer available).

Using various 2000 editions of selected Korean and American women’s magazines, Hovland  et. al. found that 30% of Korean advertisements in them featured Caucasian female models, whereas only 1.9% of US advertisements showed Asian female models. Of particular note here, both Korean and US magazines for middle-aged women showed more Korean and Caucasian models than their counterparts for younger women respectively; see here for the details.

• Kim, Minjeong & Lennon, Sharron “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006; open access copy no longer available).

As discussed in the second half of this post, the advertisements in the various 2001 editions of selected Korean women’s magazines examined actually had more Caucasian women than Koreans: 52.3% vs. 47.7% respectively, compared to 84.9% Caucasian women in advertisements in U.S. magazines.

• Nam Kyoungtae, Lee, Guiohk & Hwang, Jang-Sun “Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines“, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2007; downloadable here.

whisen-air-conditioner-advertisement-han-ye-seul-song-seung-hun(Source: Korea Times)

Of the total of 644 female models found in selected advertisements (one page or bigger and showing full adults) from selected Korean women’s magazines from 2002 and 2003, 57% were Korean and 43% were Western. Of 299 male models counted, 59.2% were Korean and 40.8% Western. And of particular interest, as I wrote here:

…Western women were more likely to be depicted in revealing clothes and or nude than Korean women, but at the same time they were also likely to be portrayed as independent, self-assured, and assertive than them too, and by no means just in a sexual sense. Again, this finding is true of Western and Korean men too…

To be fair, this at least in part echoes the the hypersexual state of Western advertising today. And rather than supporting the artificial dichotomy between chaste Koreans and oversexualized Caucasian (or Westerners) that at the heart of this post, the internal dynamics of the Korean magazine industry reveal that Korean women are active and willing consumers of the cultural and sexual norms that such advertisements literally embody, the incorporation of which into patriarchal Korea is not without friction. Not to imply that all positive changes in Korea are Western-derived of course, but regardless there are certainly a lot of advertisements with Caucasians out there.

lee min-ho cass jessica gomes( Source: Naver )

Or are there? I’d wager that many heads would have been nodding with that last statement, and, granted, some Korean clothing labels for instance – Beanpole and Hazzys come instantly to mind – do seem to use exclusively Caucasian models. But then appearances by Caucasians in Korean-made television commercials like the above, for instance, are actually the exception rather than the rule. And with the proviso that White privilege is very much alive in Korea (the existence of which I take for granted that readers agree on), and, without implying that Koreans want to look White,  that this still has a strong influence on both Koreans’ preferred cosmetic surgery operations and their huge numbers, in hindsight I’d be hard pressed to think of any segment of the Korean advertising industry that used Caucasian models to the extent researchers found in women’s magazines.

Unless of course, a great many of them were for lingerie that is.

As long-term readers will well know, it turns out that the reason for this is because before the restrictions against the use of foreign models in advertising was lifted in 1994, lingerie modeling in Korea was often done by pornographic actors (update: to be more precise, nude models) This gave it a negative image among Korean female models, the enduring strength of which was revealed recently by these ones who did model lingerie but nevertheless felt compelled to literally disguise themselves while doing so, and all quite ironic considering how willing many are willing to objectify their breasts otherwise (see here, the video here, and here for some notorious examples). Case closed then?

Yoon Eun-hye Vivien's Summer CollectionNot quite. Consider what I wrote a few months ago on the subject:

…lingerie advertisements are ubiquitous in Korea, and it’s a rare commute when I don’t have the slightly surreal experience of seeing ones featuring scantily clad Caucasians in one subway car, then seeing others with fully-clothed Koreans like [these] in another when I transfer (sometimes, you can even see both in the same car). Seriously, it’s no exaggeration to say that Koreans’ convoluted and often contradictory notions of sexuality and race literally stare me in the face everyday, and in a form that means that I’m particularly likely to sit up and take notice.

Yes, that is indeed a lingerie advertisement on the right (source). And regardless of the actual reasons for a phenomenon, once we think we’ve found the reasons for it, those shape the filter through which we take in new data. Personally then, I originally thought the use of Caucasian lingerie models demonstrated that Korean women had Caucasian body ideals, which prompted me to write this post on the subject last April. Once the stigma attached to lingerie modeling came to light that June though, then that link I had made was no longer sustainable…but not the Caucasian body ideals themselves, which there’s still a wealth of other evidence for (and see this post again). In that vein, while 4 years ago Michael Hurt was also mistaken in his proffered reasons for the numbers of Caucasian women in lingerie advertisements, writing in his blog Scribblings of the Metropolitician

One thing that I also notice is that in underwear and other commercials that require people to be scantily-clad, only white people seem to be plastered up on walls in the near-buff. Now, it may be the sense that Korean folks – especially women – would be considered too reserved and above that sort of thing (what I call the “cult of Confucian domesticity”). Maybe that’s linked to the stereotyped expectation that white people always be running around all nasty and hanging out already, as is their “way.” Another possibility has to do with the reaction I hear from Korean people when I mention this, which is that white people just “look better” with less clothes, since Koreans have “short leg” syndrome and gams that look like “radishes.” The men are more “manly” and just look more “natural” with their shirts off. Hmm. The thoughts of the culturally colonialized? Perhaps I’m being too harsh? My hunch is that it’s all of the above. Take a look.

…not only did I heartily agree with his thoughts when I first read them, but I still agree with them, because they are not just based on the numbers of Caucasians in lingerie advertisements. In particular, of the following 2003 advertisement with Ahn Jung-hwan (안정환) he wrote:

A recent favorite, reflecting the relative position of Korean masculinity vis a vis whiteness, specifically white women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the relatively greater financial power that has made Korean men an attractive partner – or at least potential plaything – of Eastern European and Russian women, and that many of them now enter the country under the E-6 “entertainment visa.” In any case, this is a fascinating statement on the changing status of “the white” in relation to Korean masculinity. No longer the inaccessible Playboy fantasy held by many men in a developing Korea that had been culturally (and partially symbolically sexually) dominated by the United States – now the tables are turned. The product being sold here is a cream to make/keep one’s skin “white.” Don’t even get me started.

And lest long-time observers of Korea feel that this particular advertisement has become somewhat iconic and overanalyzed by the Korean blogosphere, it is but one of many examples.

essor-white-advertisement-ahn-jung-hwan( Source: Somang Cosmetics )

Before providing a context for those in the remainder of this post though, I should point out that I don’t think that lingerie advertisements by definition sexualize the models featured, and so I disagree with Michael Hurt’s seeing further evidence of the sexualization of Caucasian women in the ridiculous setting of this advertisement for instance, as regardless of the source of the advertisement and/or the ethnicity of the models, worldwide they can similarly have “folks sitting around in their skivvies [that] could just as well be on the veranda of a bistro in the south of France. Eating strawberries in a bathtub in lingerie, with a towel wrapped around one’s head.” Indeed, rare Korean lingerie advertisements with Korean models are no different, and when it comes to sexualizing lingerie – nay, almost any item of woman’s clothing – it often pays to be subtle. Consider this one with Shin Min-a (신민아) that came out this summer for instance: while it is significant because previously one never saw Korean celebrities wearing the lingerie at all when they endorsed it, and is probably a belated reaction to the fact that discreetly showing one’s lingerie off has actually been the fashion for years now, personally I see much more significance in the fact that it seems designed for a male gaze.

Shin Mina Vivian Bra Lingerie Advertisement( Source: Zziixx )

As you might vaguely recall, the advertisement that prompted this post wasn’t actually a lingerie advertisement. But having Caucasians in the vast majority of those – for whatever reasons – does at least feed into the false dichotomy of chaste Koreans and overly-sexualized Caucasians. And although it’s by no means the most blatant example of its kind, the choice of outfits in it still makes it very much Exhibit A in the argument for the existence of those stereotypes (as an aside, see this post for the issues raised when skimpy clothing is donned for a good cause, like women in bikinis washing only hybrid cars). Let’s now consider the other evidence.

First, there were the recent plans to set up a nudist beach on Jeju island specifically in order to attract foreign tourists, especially Caucasians/Westerners. Apparently, this was because many were already regularly stripping off on Jeju beaches despite local sensibilities, but in the absence of anything to support those claims, and considering that Korean reporters regularly simply make stuff up and/or impose their own opinions on a report while attributing them to others (see here and #1 here respectively for recent examples), then when I heard of the idea I was much more inclined to believe that Jeju government officials came up with it completely independently. And why? Probably based on the conflation of nudity at beaches with sex said Brian in Jeollanam-do, “implying that the point of the former is to stimulate one’s appetite for the latter,” and which in turn points to “a pretty base assessment of the tastes of foreigners and foreign tourists.”

To be fair, in many senses exaggerated notions of foreigners sexuality are merely a method by which particularly older Koreans deal with and account for the uncomfortable reality of Koreans’ own sexuality, and so as Michael Hurt points out here, public displays of affection by young Koreans are often rationalized by certain Koreans by claiming that the couples involved are Japanese. No, really. But for a more tangible “other,” you need the Occident of course, which is why Korean public opinion holds Western celebrities to such different standards to Korean ones.

Lady Gaga Seoul( Source: Naver )

So while it is okay for Korean women to dress up as Paris Hilton in order to promote the Korean airing of her reality show for instance, and she regularly appears on Korean television, endorses Korean products, and literally her every word about Korea is literally lapped up (no matter how inane), on the other hand Korean female’s celebrities careers have been ruined simply for having sex with their boyfriends, or even merely being accused of making a Hiltonesque sex tape. True, Korea’s well-known cultural cringe is very much involved when the attention of Western celebrities – any celebrity – is sought, but the same principles still apply for both less notorious Western stars and Korean celebrities’ less extreme deviations from sexual norms. Hence like Paris Hilton, Lady Gaga above was recently fawned over on her recent visit to Seoul, and yet seemingly every other week: Korean groups are banned from the airwaves for even the most innocuous of lyrics (see #2 here, and the more recent case here); female groups struggle to present female sexuality as something other than dressing and acting like schoolgirls; and international models are criticized for appearing nude in photoshoots (yes, I can admit my mistakes). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But you get the idea. Next then, there is confirmation from the grass roots: Brian provides ample evidence that foreign women in bikinis are heavily targeted by Korean newspaper photographers for instance, and I must also mention that a great many Caucasian female friends have mentioned being groped and otherwise sexually harassed by Korean men to me. Of course, that is merely anecdotal evidence, and not having my blogger’s hat on at the time (I do take it off occasionally), I didn’t think to ask how that compared to experiences in their home countries. Now that I am in that frame of mind though, I’d be grateful if readers could fill me in with their own experiences, and by all means if you haven’t ever faced either problem too, as responders can be somewhat self-selecting sometimes.

But of course Korean women are also frequently photographed at beaches and/or and sexually harassed, and indeed because of that there was a short-lived experiment with women-only subway cars in Seoul a few years ago (but groping is on the rise again). Despite that, there are still good reasons to suppose that Caucasians might be targeted more:  in addition to the stereotypes perpetuated by Western media itself of course, there is the ethnic make-up of prostitutes here.

Korean Prostitution StatisticsIn itself, the Korean prostitution industry is so big, so intimately tied to Korea’s economic development, and with such a pervasive impact on the current low position of women here, it really requires a separate blog devoted to it. Finding a short introduction to point readers towards was a bit of a challenge then, but surprisingly the Wikipedia article on the subject is a good start. Once you’ve read that, I recommend following it up with Matt’s plethora of articles on the subject at his blog Gusts of Popular Feeling by clicking here (if that doesn’t work, simply copy and paste “prostitution site:” into Google), and with apologies for not mentioning them myself, other bloggers by all means feel free to promote your own posts on the subject in the comments section. My concern here though, is specifically the fact that it is primarily Russian, presumably Caucasian, women that are trafficked to work in the industry, for which I offer the following links, in roughly chronological order (source right: Korea Discussion Forums):, which has a basic introduction to the subject and links to archived articles.

Human Trafficking & Modern-day Slavery, with a similar archive.

Michael Hurt’s October 2006 post on the subject, with many links itself.

• A May 2007 article from the JoongAng Daily.

• Robert Koehler’s January 2008 post at The Marmot’s Hole on the fact that a US Congressional Research Service report on human trafficking labeled Korea a major destination for sex tourism.

• GI Korea’s post at ROK Drop a week later on Korea being taken off that list.

• An editorial in The Hankyoreh in February of this year on the fact that it is the victims of human trafficking that are often persecuted for engaging in prostitution, despite being tricked and/or forced into it.

• Finally, a post by Robert Koehler in April on the busting of a brothel in Gangnam, which had several Russian prostitues.

Korean Charisma Man(Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling)

Last but not least, no post on the title topic would be complete without the related subject of the Korean media’s portrayal of Western, Caucasian male teachers as sexual predators, for which I recommend this post by Matt and the links I provide at #1 in this post for getting a grip on. Apologies in advance to Matt in case I’ve covered any of the same material that he does, who also looks at the portrayal of Caucasian women as sex objects in that post.

In closing, again please feel free to link to and/or discuss any related subjects and posts that you think should be included here (my aim is to make the post as inclusive as possible), and I’d be especially grateful for readers passing on any of their own practical experiences with the issues raised in it. And apologies to everyone for the delays to writing this post and responding to comments and emails, as on Wednesday the wifi on my laptop completely stopped working…only to miraculously turn back on the instant the repair guy walked through my front door on Friday!

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

Korean Sociological Image #13: The Kiss

Everybody Has Secrets Kiss 2004(Source: unknown)

It’s amazing how quickly things can change in Korea sometimes.

Granted, you’re unlikely to see an eye-catching kiss akin to the above on primetime TV at the moment, but at the rate things are going then it won’t be too much longer. It was only at the end of May that Shin Min-a (신민아) for instance, made waves for her first screen kiss with Won Bin (원빈) in the coffee commercial below, and it seems like pop culture blogs have literally been full of similar examples ever since:

See here, here, #10 here, and here if that’s given you for a taste of more. Indeed, in one of those links, I lamented that with so many commercials with kissing appearing these days, it’s difficult to keep track — but it wasn’t really until I saw this next commercial that I realized just how mainstream it had suddenly become:

No, I couldn’t keep a straight face either…

But what might one gain from this, other than merely passing on notice of a new trend? Well, most if not all of those commercials above are aimed at 20-somethings, either explicitly in the tag-line (a new trend in itself) or by the admission of producers. And while they are hardly unique in that regard, the combination of the two personally reminded me of the perceptive point made by Korean sociologist So-hee Lee made in her chapter in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea:

Generation is an important attribute of identity in Korea, like race in the United States. (p. 146)

Obvious perhaps, but arguably only with the benefit of hindsight, and in the decade or so I’ve been reading about Korean society I’ve only come across a handful of authors making the same point, and never so succinctly. Moreover, despite having been written in the late-1990s, this commercials prove that it is more relevant than ever, and I’d argue that it should be included in the first lecture on any undergraduate course on Korean society.

Won Bin Shin Min-a Kiss(Source)

For more on Lee, see here for my take on her work on female sexuality in Korean popular culture. Meanwhile, I accept that my memories of Korean commercials may be lacking, and so I am happy (and fully expect) to receive earlier cases of kissing in Korean commercials from readers: surely the first wasn’t just this May? And in that vein, I also accept that their recent numbers may also have been inflated by my imagination, and regardless by no means precipitated by that one with Shin Min-a and Won Bin either, which may have been merely the first I noticed.

On a final note, I’m also curious in your opinions on what impact – if any – these commercials with have on the acceptability of kissing in public. Personally I think that that’s some years off yet, but then I rarely go drinking these days, and may well be surprised at what goes on in my local university district on Friday nights!

(For more posts in my “Korean Sociological Images” series, see here)

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:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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)