Today I Read About an Awesome Feminist Japanese Painter and Was Reminded Of My Favorite Soju Poster

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Sources: Reiodori, LotteLiquor.

In the spirit of today’s title, let me direct you straight towards the moment I learned why Uemura Shōen was so amazing:

Shōen successfully turned her passion to creating a life worth living through her paintings. The themes and main subjects in all her paintings are women. Moreover, the women depicted in her paintings of this period are decisively different from those that appear in paintings done by men in the tradition of the Kyoto school of Bijinga, whose tradition dates back several hundred years. The major characteristic of women in the paintings before Shōen was that they were treated as the object of men’s sexual interest. Shōen painted working women for the first time in the history of Japanese painting. One of the masterpieces along that line is Yugure (Dusk). Here a middle-aged woman opens the paper-covered sliding door of her room to get enough light to thread a needle. Her plain kimono, the needlework, and the weak sunlight of the dusk impressively create an atmosphere of daily life. Japanese painting portrayed the reality of working women for the first time through Shōen’s works. They are as significant as the works of Millet, who painted working women instead of bourgeois women. In the late 1930s Uemura painted another middle-aged woman shown repapering a door to prepare for the coming winter in Banshu (Late Autumn). In another painting in a series titled Yuki no naka (In the Snow), she described women walking in the severe cold with heavy snow on their umbrellas. The clean, sharp, uncompromising lines of her drawing supported by her accurate drawing ability and the use of just a few colors clearly show the painter’s integrity of mind. It took Shōen a long time to reach this heightened state. Shōen received a great many awards for her noble and innovative art.

Page 71, “Three Women Artists of the Meiji Period (1868-1912): Reconsidering Their Significance from a Feminist Perspective” by Midori Wakakuwa (trans. by Naoko Aoki) in Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present and Future ed. by Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Atsuko Kameda (1995); my emphases.

Which really did immediately remind me of modern rock singer Kim Yoon-ah‘s 2006 unique poster for Cheoeum-Cheoreom soju above. Like I wrote in 2010, and sadly still remains the case today, it’s “the only one I’ve seen in which the woman depicted is actually doing something of her own accord and enjoying herself, rather than waiting to be seduced by a man.” Which is not to say that sultry and seductive is bad in itself, but just a small sampling of soju posters over the years reveals how monotonous that theme can be, and how truly exceptional this soju poster is. Made more even more so, by the text in white at the bottom that I missed nine years ago (apologies for the poor quality):

It reads: “김윤아씨의 모델료는 가정폭력 피해자들에게 기부됩니다. 여성으로서 락음악의 새로운 가능성을 연 가수, 김윤아”/ “Kim Yun-Ah’s model fee is donated to domestic violence victims. Singer Kim Yoon-ah, who paved the way for new possibilities of rock music as a woman.”

Turning back to Uemura Shōen’s own depictions of women actually doing something, here are the paintings (and one from the In the Snow series) mentioned above by Wakakuwa:

At Dusk. Source: Japanese Painting Gallery
Late Autumn. Source: Fine Art America.
Feathered Snow. Source: Japonica.

I include the difficult to find full images, rather than the much more numerous, higher-quality close-ups of the women’s faces available, because of what I read about the importance of the paintings’ empty spaces at Japan Objects:

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Japanese painting when contrasted with its European counterpart is the use of empty space. And of course, this distinction was carried into the twentieth century….In Shōen Uemura’s Feathered Snow, the great blankness of the paper successful conveys the sensation of inclement weather, where the horizon reduces to edge of your umbrella as you try to shelter from the cold.

Inspiration aside though, I do wonder if the distinction between Shōen and her predecessors was as sharp as Wakakuwa suggests? In hindsight, her passage sounds a little hyperbolic. And my frustration with locating the full images among all those close-ups was a foreshadowing of what I’d read about Shōen online later, which tended to place her work very much on a continuum with other Bijinga (literally, “paintings of beautiful women”). That said, Jeff Hammond in The Japan Times notes her subjects weren’t the courtesans from the pleasure districts usually found in the genre. Also, in a must-read account in Japanonica of a 2017 exhibition of her work, historian and curator Roisin Inglesby finds subtle but important differences to works by her male contemporaries, despite her indeed very much sharing their emphasis on beauty:

 …[Shōen’s] “outsider” status as a woman enabled her to acquire a deeper understanding of her female models and employ different approaches from male artists—a quality which, the curators argue, elevates her paintings by portraying women not just as objects created through the lens of the male gaze, but as thinking, feeling subjects who invite us to admire their inner beauty as well as their outward attractiveness.

In her efforts to show female beauty in what she believed to be its purest form, Shōen’s paintings are characterized by both a lightness of touch and a depth of feeling. [The tour guide] invited us to take time to look closely at the works and consider the emotional complexity beneath the peaceful expressions of Shōen’s subjects.

I wince at the crude characterization of the male gaze—admiration of outward attraction is not mutually exclusive with that of inner beauty—but that’s a subject for another post. Continuing later:

One of the most interesting aspects of [the] tour was [the] explanation of how Shōen gives agency to her subjects through a variety of techniques. In many paintings, she used a splash of red pigment on the women’s earlobes and fingertips to animate their otherwise placid demeanor. This small, yet visually enlivening, detail signals activity: these women hear; they touch. Often beautiful women are painted as objects of desire and admiration, yet through the composition of her work it seemed to me that Shōen invites her viewers to question their interior thoughts as well as appreciate their external beauty. The sparse background of Feathered Snow (1944) not only gives the impression of a punishing winter wind which beats its subjects back to one side of the painting, but encouraged my eyes to follow the movement of the composition and rest on their faces. What are they thinking as they trudge through the snow?

I recommend reading the article in full, and to watch this slideshow for many more examples of her work. Please feel free to add to (or correct) anything above also—including on Bijinga’s influence on Korean art, which I’m now about to look for more information about in my modest library, rather than preparing crucial PowerPoints for tomorrow’s classes. Damn you, Uemura! ;)

Related Posts:

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

#MeToo to meat: no more soju calendars with nearly nude women in South Korea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by Tan Danh from Pexels.

No, not normal soju posters and calendars, but these ones (NSFW) and these ones by Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewing respectively. I’m not surprised seeing them in restaurants (NSFW) made so many people uncomfortable (seriously, where would you look?), and wasn’t exaggerating when I was quoted in Crystal Tai’s article that “assuming that pictures of nude women [is] all that is required to [get people to change soju brands] is just patronising and insulting.” Perhaps that’s why my tweet about them below, a simple link to a news article, gained such traction:

Please read Crystal’s article for more information on what all the fuss is about. And, for even more information, here are some of my original email interview questions and answers:

Q) When did you first notice soju posters of women and such calendars around you? Do you remember the first time you saw one?

I noticed them immediately after I arrived in Korea in 2000, because they were ubiquitous; the level of alcohol advertising in New Zealand couldn’t begin to compare. I didn’t pay them much attention until about six years later however, because all of a sudden many soju companies started depicting women in revealing clothing and more sexualized poses in their posters, which was a big shift from the virginal depictions of the previous two decades. Soon after, this trend was further accelerated by the liberal use of K-pop stars as endorsement models, as gaining notoriety through revealing campaigns was and remains a win-win for both their entertainment companies and the soju companies.

That said, soju posters are just another means to “consume” a celebrity by fans, who generally must assume the same persona whether they’re in a talkshow, MV, or a soju commercial.* So, despite the trend, by no means are all soju models sexualized today: “innocent” IU, Son Na-eun of Apink, and especially Suzy (of the former Miss A) all tend to be depicted virginally in their own campaigns, the latter despite her having been in several high-profile relationships.

(*Hat-tip to to friend and SNU Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, whose book chapter I was channeling just a little too directly there!)

Q) What do you think such images mean to Korean men? Why do you think they are often surrounded by such images at bars, pubs, gogijibs (meat restaurants) etc?

It’s unlikely they hold any special meaning that they wouldn’t hold for men of any other nationality. As for their being surrounded by such images however, this is likely because Korea is in many ways a very homosocial society, with many unspoken but strongly-defined separate spaces for men and women. Note that most middle and high-schools were single-sex two decades ago, that almost all Korean men do approximately two years of military service, and that Korean women still struggle to retain their jobs after childbirth, those that succeed often having to leave mandatory after-work drinking gatherings early to look after their children while their male colleagues continue drinking elsewhere. Consequently, while coffee shops are strongly associated with women, and feature in many complaints and negative stereotypes about them, the atmosphere in bars and restaurants that sell a lot of soju can sometimes feel very off-putting for anyone that isn’t a middle-aged Korean man.

(Image: This interpretation in this video analysis is maybe too much. Yet I can never pass Na-eun’s poster below without thinking about that bottleneck on the left!)

Do you think that the Me-too movement and recent feminist movements really play a big role in Hite-Jinro’s decision to discontinue such calendars?

Given the recent news that “racequeens” are going to be phased out of the racing industry,* as well as calls to do the same with cheerleaders at sporting events, then the timing can hardly be a coincidence. But it may also be a convenient excuse for decisions already made. Unless revealing soju posters are also part of a creative and memorable campaign—which these calendars definitely are not—then it’s extremely debatable whether they ever have any real influence on Korean men’s consumption choices. In my own experience, their tastes in soju tend to be very regional, and they tend to stick to the same brands throughout their lives. Assuming that pictures of nude women are all that is required to change their minds is just patronizing and insulting, so I’m both glad and not particularly surprised that alternative strategies are now being attempted.

(*My mistake: they’re being phased out in Formula 1, but I don’t know enough about the industry to judge what—if any—impact that will have on racing events in Korea. See here for an article about the impact in Japan.)

Do you think other alcohol companies will follow suit as well? And do you think this means the provocative celebrity posters and campaigns will change as well?

No. The calendars by Hite-Jinro were the only ones to feature nudity, and the “sporty” ones by Oriental Brewery were also much more revealing than average. But most soju posters aren’t particularly any more sexually-objectifying of women than Korean advertising in general, because that is already pervasive in the industry as a whole. To wit: in a 2015 study, women were 5.9 times more likely than men to not be fully dressed in Hong Kong television ads, 22.89 times more likely in Japanese ads, and 56.83 times more likely in South Korean ads. By no means, can soju ads be the only culprit in the Korean case!

And if that’s still not enough, here’s a small sample of related posts I’ve written over the years:

Meanwhile, I hope everyone had a happy new year, and sorry my posting has been so erratic. But I have big writing plans for 2019!

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

Korean Photoshop Disaster #9: Soju Goggles (Updated)

(Source)

Pondering questions about excessive photoshopping in ads for a radio interview I’ll be doing next week, yesterday I would have said that Koreans are so accepting, even welcoming of it, that unfortunately little surprises me anymore.

Then I saw the alien that has replaced Lee Da-hae (이다해) on Charm Soju’s (참소주) website

Update – Thanks to Paul Kerry for drawing my attention to these further examples, also available on the website:

Paul at least has seen them in a restaurant (example here), and Lee Da-hae’s endorsement deal also produced a lot of Korean news reports and blog entries back in September, so they’re certainly out there. Unfortunately though, I’ve been searching in vain for any mention of the Photoshopping in them. As they say, the silence is deafening!

Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements

It’s not often that I laugh at soju advertisements.

Flying in the face of decades-old traditions that they should feature demure and virginal-looking women though, this one with singer Baek Ji-young (백지영) for Yipsejoo (잎새주) literally had me in tears.

Indeed, if it’s not a deliberate satire, then it at least prompted me to reexamine those traditions, making me realize just how ridiculous many are. And being exclusively designed for a “male gaze” too, they also prove to be a very good guide to it, giving pointers to the ways in which a wide range of advertisements seem to be based on the assumption that their audience are entirely heterosexual men, especially by focusing on and sexualizing women’s bodies.

Even when the products are aimed at women.

But first, the humor of this one, which is on several levels. First there is the caption, which reads “In autumn, rather than your lips (kiss), please give me some strong-tasting Yipsejoo!,” (가을, 입술보다 진한 잎술주세요!), and is a pun based on the fact that yibsool (입술), or lips, sounds very similar to yipsool (잎술), shorthand for Yipsejoo.

And as an added inside-joke for fans, a popular song on Baek Ji-young’s 7th album Sensibility, released five months before she was hired by Yipsejoo’s parent company Bohae (보해양조), even had the name Give Me Your Lips (입술을 주고) too.

But context is everything.

Previously on a fast track to stardom, Baek Ji-young was the innocent victim of a sex-scandal in 2000, and had to fight hard against Korea’s double-standards in order to revive her career. But while this severely limited her advertising options, perhaps one silver lining was the ability to disregard the high moral standards Koreans usually apply to their celebrities (especially women), and indeed it is very difficult to imagine anyone else appearing in advertisements like those she has so far for Yipsejoo.

For instance, recall that when she was chosen in an online poll to model for Yipsejoo in March last year, I remarked that her first advertisement for the company below was:

…not to put too fine a point on it, literally the sluttiest soju ad I’ve ever seen….

With apologies for sounding crass (then), but I still can’t think of a better way to describe it:

I also discussed the fact that while she did mention how happy she was to have been chosen to appear in soju advertisements like top stars Lee Hyori and Song Hye-gyo, one still sensed that they wouldn’t have consented to appearing bra-less and with an open zipper in them, which smacked of desperation. Judging by the soju advertisements that emerged that summer however, I was quite wrong, but then I’d already concluded of Beak Ji-young that:

however unfair or unwarranted, she’ll always be stuck with her promiscuous image, so she may as well play into it.

Still, I didn’t realize that she would take my advice quite so literally!

To be precise, I laughed so hard when I saw the opening image because I thought she looked like a prostitute who’d been plying her trade for rather too long now, and which were quite a contrast to, say, these earlier ones for Yipsejoo featuring Jeong Ryeo-won (정려원), for whom her evening of drinking soju with her male partner will be her first time in more ways than one:

But this post is not about that shift, which I’ve more than adequately covered elsewhere, although I do want to stress 2 things about it here before moving on: that however impressed I was by the changes when I first noticed them back in 2007, it was still extremely naive of me to have ever equated it with (female) sexual liberation(!); and that while an empirical study would undoubtedly demonstrate an increase in soju advertisements with – in the sociological framework that I’ll be using below – “body display” – in recent years, there is by no means an linear progression of racier advertisements over time.

Even just Yipseejo itself for instance, makes both forms of advertisements with the same models, and/or seems to alternate which ones it primarily makes with them, such as traditional, virginal ones with Jeong Ryeo-won and Han Ji-min (한지민) in 2006 and 2008 respectively, but then racier ones with Kim Ok-bin in 2007 and Baek Ji-young in 2009.

Regardless, both types are still designed for the male gaze. In the interests of full disclosure however, I have never studied that formally, and so here I shall be quoting liberally from the excellent A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose, part of the Semiotics and Advertising Web Site of the University of Vermont, and I also highly recommend this post by Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician after that for an analysis of Korean women’s body images using that perspective.

But it does dovetail nicely with the work done by the late sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1979 work Gender Advertisements, still very much the framework by which sociologists study how gender roles are perpetuated in advertising (and indeed referred to repeatedly in A Web Essay). In earlier posts, I’ve already analyzed Korean advertisements using one motif of that: “Relative Size”, or how and why it is extremely rare to see women taller than men in advertisements despite being women being taller than men in 1 out of 6 randomly matched pairs. It’s high time to start using others, beginning with “Ritualization of Subordination”:

Under this broad category, Goffman actually described a great number of symbolic ways in which the women’s behavior in advertisements displays the subordination of females to males, many of which involve women acting like children. Why this is more problematic than it may sound is because:

Given the subordinated and indulged position of children in regard to adults, it would appear that to present oneself in puckish styling is to encourage the corresponding treatment. How much of this guise is found in real life is an open question; but found it is in advertisements. (Goffman, p. 48)

And indeed Korean society strongly encourages grown women to act like children, so it is probably not surprising to hear that in Korean adolescent girl’s magazines for instance, Korean female models are portrayed in such ways much more often than Western ones. From Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines by Nam, Kyoungtae., Lee, Guiohk. and Hwang, Jang-Sun (2007):

Korean women were more likely to be portrayed in smiling, pouting and childlike or cute expressions than Western women. This result is similar to the findings of [this 1999 study] in which many Japanese girls in magazine advertising were portrayed as happy, playful and childlike. Understanding that gender displays in advertising reflect cultural orientation in a society, these findings indicate that in Korea and Japan, cuteness is an important virtue for women. (p. 18)

And yet to complain about those advertisements with Yoo In-young (유인영) and Shin Min-a (신민아) above, especially when they’re aimed at men, might still seem a little excessive. But then consider the following images from A Web Essay, which poses the questions “What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

“What about these images?”

And as you probably expected:

Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?

Not childlike per se, but as the next part points out, such expressions are often done with a head cant, for instance by Chae Yeon (채연) and Han Hyo-Joo (한효주) below:

The effect of the head cant is to lower the level of the head:

“…relative to that of others, including, indirectly, the viewer of the picture. The resulting configuration can be read as an acceptance of subordination, and expression of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement.” (Goffman, p. 46)

And A Web Essay adds that it is often combined with putting a finger in the mouth or otherwise touching the face in a childlike way, and so common in advertising as to be barely noticed:

The difference between those and the soju advertisements however, is that they’re all from women’s magazines and presumably aimed at women, and so what is actually going on in those is:

…not that the viewer is looking at a woman who is actually subordinate or childish. Rather, the models are posed so as to show that they know that they are being looked at — belying the otherwise childlike pose — and they are controlling or mastering this act of being looked at. The childish, submissive postures are represented as strategic, as a sign of control of the gaze.

This mastery and control over the gaze might explain why the highly accomplished and wealthy women you see above would strike submissive, deferential poses for the camera that no accomplished man would strike. For in so doing:

…[they are] not at all signaling to others that [they are] actually subordinate; on the contrary, [they are] showing that [they], too, can be successful in this arena, the arena where the goal is to attract and control the power of the gaze by striking a subordinate pose. And were this an occasional event, if we regularly saw images of women that were of a different sort, the effect might be innocuous.

The problem is, however, that most women make less money and have less power than most men, and the message that goes out to women without power is that to get some, you need to gain control of a male view of women — which means to get power through male power, rather than on your own.

This is where the theory of the male gaze becomes important…

A Web Essay also briefly mentions women’s typical advertising poses in much the same vein. But I think that that’s a little misguided, as a distinction needs to be made between those that are sexually appealing to heterosexual men and others, the basic physiology of sexual reproduction ensuring that men will almost always look ridiculous in the former. Hilariously demonstrated by these pictures from English Russia for instance:

See Sociological Images for a wider discussion of those. Of course, by no means are women (or men) always placed in sexually appealing poses in advertisements, but for some reason women in particular frequently are placed in completely bizarre, often comical ones instead. Goffman notes of them that:

The note of unseriousness struck by a childlike guise is struck by another styling of the self, this one perhaps entirely restricted to advertisements, namely, the use of the entire body as a playful gesticulative device, a sort of body clowning. (Goffman p. 50)

With the possible exception of that with Kim Ok-bin, admittedly these following examples from soju advertisements can not really be described as “childlike.” But however natural they may appear though (again because of our frequent exposure to them), in fact some are extremely awkward to perform: just try them and see!

Starting with Kim Ah-joong (김아중) and Song Hye-gyo (송혜교):

Then Chae Yeon and Kim Ok-bin:

And finally Shin Min-a and Lee Hyori (이효리):

Those with Chae Yeon, Kim Ok-bin, and particularly Shin Min-a also display the “bashful knee bend,” which women frequently but men only infrequently are posed in a display of. Whatever else, it:

…can be read as a forgoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, for the position adds a moment to any effort to fight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm. (Goffman, p. 45)

But I’ll wisely move on to the second and last motif for this post, that of “Licensed Withdrawal.” In the words of Images of Women in Advertising:

 

[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others.  This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state;  they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire.  Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation.  They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

But I’d never given it much thought until I saw this composite of four soju advertisements with Jang Yun-jeong (장윤정), which I also laughed out loud at. What on Earth is she looking at?

More examples with Kim Tae-hee (김태희), and Ku Hye-sun (구혜선):

And to which can be added Han Hyo-joo’s from earlier. Arguably Ku Hye-sun is merely lost in her enjoyment of her drink though, and in that sense the advertisement could even be used to appeal to women(?). But then with the possible exception of the second one of Baek Ji-young’s, no advertisement featured here is particularly objectionable in itself; rather, this post has been about noting recurring features of soju advertisements that – if I may be so presumptuous – now that you’re more aware of, are likely to see across the entire Korean (and Western) media.

It is the pervasiveness of these features that is objectionable, and so rarely countered by alternative images of women.

But on that note, I should point out that I notice and pay attention to soju advertisements with skin just as much as the next guy; actually probably more so (call it an occupational hazard). Still, based on the opinions of the men and women in my classes at least, this one with Song Hye-gyo has the greatest universal appeal, although that is probably simply because of her attractiveness:

And after writing this post, in fact this one with Kim Yoon-ah (김윤아; not the skater) of the rock band Jaurim (자우림) is my favorite: it’s the only one I’ve seen in which the woman depicted is actually doing something of her own accord and enjoying herself, rather than waiting to be seduced by a man. Baek Ji-young’s does come close of course, but then it’s even more unflattering, and all she is doing is drinking!

Finally, while it’s technically out of place, I would be remiss in not providing the one which, well, literally had my female students squealing in delight when they saw it. Featuring Kang Dong-won (강동원) for Bom Bom (봄봄; “Spring Spring”), that will be music to the ears of manufacturer Daesun (대선주조), creators of one of the first ever soju brands aimed at women:

See here for more information on the consequences of that for soju advertisements so far; given all the above, it is perhaps no surprise that most soju advertisers still can’t restrain themselves from using womens’ bodies!

(Soju advertisement sources: Shootar.net, or directly from manufacturers’ websites)

Korean Sociological Image #20: Sex Sells

Yahoo Korea Cheoum Cheorom Cool UEE

Pity the hapless commentator on hidden themes in advertising. Not only is he or she often accused of overanalysis, but men in particular can be labeled as positively perverted in seeing sexual symbols in otherwise inanimate objects.

Granted, sometimes a bottle is just a bottle, and Cheoum Cheoreom Cool (처음처럼 쿨), a new brand of soju, is not the only commercial to have an animated example of its product moving across the screen below it on Yahoo! Korea at the moment. But I do wonder why the bottle is tilted the way it is though, particularly as the long-held convention in Korean alcohol advertising is that bottles should always be displayed standing upright?

As it happens, that convention is still adhered to on Cheoum Cheoreom Cool’s website, but with the soju bottle springing-up in a most satisfying manner in the corner of the screen once you click on the “over 19” button. That wasn’t the case when I wrote about its marketing campaign last month.

Naturally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

But I’m not against this latest twist per se, and indeed this advertisement for bokbunja (복분자) below with a similar theme still puts a smile on my face 4 months after first noticing it (see here for more like it). And yet Cheoum Cheoreom Cool’s version isn’t quite so, well, elegant, and smacks of desperation given that the campaign already so excessively focuses on female body parts. Perhaps like Lee Hyori before her, UEE (유이) isn’t bringing Lotte the increased market share anticipated?

Phallic Bokbunja advertisement( Source: Jinro )

Thanks to reader “JSK Hanglo” for bringing the commercial to my attention.

Update: See here for some similar phallic symbolism from the latest New Yorker.

(For all posts in my Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

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Sex, Sensibility and the Bottom Line: Evolving Images of Women in Korean Soju Advertising

Cheoum Cheoreom Cool Breasts Buttocks 168

Watching one of Lotte’s commercials for its new Cheoum Cheoreom Cool (처음처럼 쿨) soju dozens of times…as one does…then many thoughts come to mind, but that it is being effectively marketed towards women isn’t one of them. Yet weren’t they the main reason low-alcohol soju brands were launched in the first place?

As those objectified breasts and buttocks helpfully remind us, Cheoum Cheoreom Cool’s alcohol content is 16.8%, so take the examples of the two closest brands in terms of alcohol content for instance: Daesun’s Bom Bom (봄봄, 16.7%) launched in April, and Muhak’s Joeunday (좋은데이, 16.9%) launched in November 2006 (see here for a helpful graphic comparing all three), and both of those were indeed aimed towards women.

Of the two, Bom Bom’s marketing is the most of interest because Daesun took the very rare step of using a young, photogenic male in its advertisements. But while Muhak’s own campaign was ultimately unsuccessful (commercials released after early-2007 are difficult to find, and Joeunday’s website is no longer available, although the drink is still being produced), its use of then 28 and 36 year-old female and male entertainers Chae Yeon (채연) and Jung Jun-ho (정준호) respectively was also significant as a partial, albeit somewhat ambiguous attempt to appeal to a much older female demographic than all the other campaigns considered here.

Joeunday Soju Chae Yeon Jung Jun-ho( Source: Muhak )

 

Combined with the knowledge that only 30% of soju drinkers are women then, it would be very tempting to interpret the introduction of increasingly weaker soju drinks over the last decade in terms of a women-centered advertising narrative, with all the changes to Korean drinking culture, gender relations, and Korean women’s body-images that that would imply. But that would be quite mistaken however, as simply saving on costly alcohol is just as powerful a motivator for soju companies, and actually the vast majority of new brands are still exclusively targeted towards men (take Bohae’s Ipseju (잎새주; 19.5%), which I wrote about in April). In particular though, there is the fact that Lotte and Jinro take up 12.6% and 78% of the country’s soju market respectively, and so regardless of the innovations of other companies, it is the logic behind the marketing campaigns of these companies that is the most important.

In that vein, the case of Jinro’s J (제이, 18.5%) is very interesting: launched in October last year, I praised it for its original marketing, but it was still definitely aimed at 20-somethings of both sexes. In June this year though, a new marketing campaign specifically aimed towards getting women to associate the brand with staying slim was launched. In addition, when Lotte bought Doosan’s liquor arm in January this year (after an unsuccessful attempt to buy Jinro in 2005), it inherited a contract with Lee Hyori (이효리) from November 2007, and the logic to her commercials for Cheoum Cheoreom (처음처럼) was similarly getting (female) consumers to associate the brand with her slim body.

Which is what made this latest effort from Lotte so confusing:

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In hindsight, it’s actually a little derivative of Jinro’s original effort, in which “1032” refers to the depth from which the water used to prepare the drink is taken from the sea:

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Granted, Lotte’s video briefly objectifies men too. Not that that somehow justifies the objectification of women in it of course…or that I’ll feign offense at either. Rather, it aroused me my interest because it reminded me of this:

…some advertisers, aware of the objections of the feminist movement to traditional images of women in ads, have incorporated the criticism into their ads, many of which now present an alternative stereotype of the cool, professional, liberated women…Some agencies trying to accommodate new attitudes in their campaigns, often miss the point and equate ‘liberation’ with a type of aggressive sexuality and very unliberated coy sexiness.

Dyer, G. (1982) Advertising as Communication, pp. 185-186, quoted in Strinati, D. (1995) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, pp. 187-188)

Is that what is occurring here? Deciding to investigate then, I was stuck by the Korean media’s interest in the marketing campaign also, albeit for two entirely different reasons.

Cheoum Cheoreom Cool Bicep

First, having an alcohol content under 17% means that commercials can be screened on television after 10pm, and hence that the alcohol content of soju drinks would eventually reach that level has long been predicted by industry analysts. Even more presciently though, back in March one said:

…if you go under 17% you blur the boundary with low-alcohol drinks. Because you gain the ability to have TV ads at less than 17%, you could be promoting drinking cultures and exposing teenagers to it, so the authorities may stop you.”

And as this Korean source reveals, last week the rules were indeed changed. But Joeunday’s commercials wouldn’t have been particularly corrupting of Korean youth, nor Daesun’s commercial below with Kang Dong-won (강원도), on Korean screens since August 1, so this was probably a direct reaction to the launch of Cheoum Cheoreom Cool in late August.

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Only Daeson suffered though, as in anticipation of the negative publicity and the government’s intentions, spokespeople for Lotte said that they never decided not to make television commercials (see here and here). Which brings me to the second reason for the intense media interest in it: Lotte deciding not to use Lee Hyori to endorse the drink, despite her still easily being Korea’s biggest sex-symbol, and notorious for always sexing-up advertisements and pushing the limits of Koreans’ supposed Confucian reserve (see here and here). Apparently, in nearly 2 years promoting Cheoum Cheoreom, she hadn’t brought around the turnaround in fortunes expected (update: these statistics dispute that).

 

Lee Hyori Curls 2007 But in fairness to Lee Hyori, Doosan was in the midst of reorganizing itself into a holding company centered around heavy industries when it hired her, and in hindsight the same company that had just bought the world’s biggest maker of construction equipment earlier that year was not necessarily the best one to transform the image of the drinks in the eyes of 20-somethings: see here and here for the ensuing advertising disasters. Hence the consternation caused earlier this week when it was revealed that while she would continue to promote Cheoum Cheoreom, relatively unknown UEE (유이) would be used for Cheoum Cheoreom Cool instead (but not replacing Lee Hyori, as this blog naturally but mistakenly stated), and with the combination of the two Lotte hopes to bring their market share up to 15%.

Which is why it is UEE that graces the front page of all Korean portal sites as I type this, and as it turns out, what I’d seen was merely one of many pre-launch commercials and advertisements based on the theme of “168 ,” most of which were rather inane. Here then, is the commercial Lotte really wants you to remember:

In it, UEE begins with “오빠 나 쿨해, 내가 진짜 처음이야?”, which roughly translates as (to the guys she’s dating) “I’m cool…am I really your first?”. After that, the first guy just mutters nonsense, and later she says “쿨하게 생각해!” or…er…”Think Cooly,” and she finishes with “원샷. 어! 상쾌해!”, or “One shot! Oh! It’s sweet!”.

Consider these accompanying advertisements also, released at the same time:

UEE Soju Cool Honest( Source: Naver )
UEE Soju Cool Love(Source: Naver)

The text in the first reads: “Q: Honest. 남친이랑 여행할땐, 솔직히 말하는게 Cool 할걸까? MT 간다고 뻥치는게 Cool 할건까? A: Think Casual”, or “When you travel with your boyfriend, which is cooler: admitting it to your parents, or lying and saying you’re going on a trip with your university friends?”. And in the second: “Q : Love 키스할때 눈을 감고 하는게 Cool 하니? 쳐다 보면서 하는게 Cool 하니? A : Think Casual”, or “When you kiss, which is cooler? With your eyes closed or staring at your partner?”. In addition, many bottles of the drink will be sold with blue or pink bottletops, with the above messages or similar ones printed on the labels (see the video here at 0:31 to see those). And despite the former ostensibly being directed towards women, one might speculate that the message with the blue text might actually appeal more to men, and only with the pink or red more to women.

And so considering: the bicep in the prelaunch advertisements and commercials; their kissing scenes (albeit no longer remarkable in Korean advertising); and now these, with the intention of showing “how cool women behave,” then of course the marketing campaign is also aimed towards them. Even possibly the de rigueur “sexy dance” below too, as even though UEE was chosen because of her popularity among 20-something men, such dances are often used to advertise products to women also:

As an aside,  several sources describe the dance as simultaneously sexy and pure and innocent, but without any apparent trace of irony: something that won’t surprise Brian in Jeollanam-do, who has often criticized the bastardization of the word in the Korean language. I wonder though, if that adds to the argument that it is intended for both female and male consumption? Regardless, here’s a video of the making of it also, and although I find personally find that they ruin the fantasy element to commercials myself, they are also important elements to marketing campaigns these days (and I speculate more popular among women than men):

By this stage then, you will probably not be surprised to find that most of the Korean sources I’ve linked to do in fact mention that the drink was aimed at both sexes (although one adds that it would have been more logical to exclusively aim it towards women). But rather than simply provide that information at the beginning, I decided to roughly replicate the process by which I came to find that information for myself, hopefully providing a good overview of the current state of soju advertising in the process (but which should definitely be read in conjunction with this one from June).

And also to resist my temptation to merely assume that the marketing campaign with UEE both reflects and/or is the harbinger of more sexually assertive images of women in Korean advertising. After all, considering that: the recession has already forced advertisers of all stripes to rely on consumers’ basic instincts; soju companies have nothing but the profit incentive in mind; and if they don’t see (hyper)objectification of women for a male gaze as incompatible with the commensurate goal of selling soju to women, confirming the suspicions that first came to mind as discussed, then that doesn’t bode well for reducing Korean women’s excessive worries about their appearances.

And yet regardless of the motivations behind them, one still can’t help but reflect on all the changes to women’s images in soju advertising in recent years, not all of which have been negative. Granted, I have often exaggerated the depth and positive impact of those changes in the past. But let me leave you with the fact that this alternate image of women was the norm less than two years ago:

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At the very least then, we can all agree on the pace of change…just one reason why Korean sociology is so interesting!

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Korean Gender Reader

Ha Ji-won Jinro Chamisul

Granted, that soju posters have been becoming increasingly risqué in recent years is by no means news (see #1 here), and it’s also true that advertisers tend to rely more on consumers’ baser instincts during recessions…but still, even I did a double take when I saw this latest one (source) with Ha Ji-won (하지원), and it makes one wonder what the summer of 2010 will bring if present trends continue.

Ironically however, it is actually rather tame compared to what Korean musicians have been doing recently to get themselves noticed, such as the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스) having a lesbian kissing scene in their latest music video, or former “race-queen” Jung Eun-joo (정은주) producing a music video that is literally soft porn, her management agency (not unreasonably) arguing that she wouldn’t get noticed otherwise. And yet while the latter in particular is complete trash that will never make it to Korean screens, and like Chae-yeon’s (채연) new music video Shake (흔들려) for “suggestive dancing” (see #1 here) and  TVXQ’s songs for their “lewd content” (see #2 here), the Brown Eyed Girl’s effort may similarly also end up being banned from television, those represent just a handful of cases that have cropped up just this year, as cultural producers really do seem to be testing the limits these days. Hence, although Korea’s various state bodies involved with censorship certainly do have corporatist interests in exerting their authority, they may well have their hands full at the moment, and I wonder if as a result we might be about to witness a tectonic shift in the liberalization of the Korean media similar to what happened in 2004, when the following commercial for Hong Kong clothing company Giordano with Jun ji-Hyun (전지현) and Jung Woo-sung (정우성) was banned:

But which resulted in so many clones shortly thereafter that censors seemed to give up on them. Here’s an example from the following year for 17차 for instance, again with Jun Ji-hyun:

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True, the former is very sexual, whereas the latter merely glorifies objectifies the female body…a distinction that I’m only just realizing as I type this, and one that I suspect I really haven’t given enough thought to previously: it deserves further exploring. Regardless, lest you think that I’m exaggerating about the potential for a shift, recall that it also occurs in a context where the Lee Myung-bak’s increasingly authoritarian policies towards the media are creating a backlash, and standards for movies have been liberalizing without pause for breath (see #1 here, #8 here, and #7 here for starters).

In other news:

1) Bending over backwards to satisfy his readers, Ask the Expat provides a very comprehensive and clearly well-researched guide to cruising for gay sex in Korean bathhouses.

2) Approaching things from a different angle, Korea Beat translated a lengthy article from The Chosun Weekly about Lesbian clubs in Hongdae, a major night-life area of Seoul.

The Price Of Sin3) Lee Myung-bak pledged Thursday to increase state subsidies for working mothers and provide more nurseries and daycare centers in an effort to boost the country’s birthrate, but given that (among numerous other things) married women have been overwhelmingly targeted for layoffs in the current recession, then I suspect that this will have minimal effect (see numerous past Korean Gender Readers for more information, but best are #1 here, #2 here, and #2 here, and here is the most recent newspaper article on the subject). It also doesn’t help that, with dwindling numbers of newborns, women’s hospitals are blatantly refusing to deliver babies in favor or easier and more profitable skin care and cosmetic surgeries either.

4) Again, Korea’s adultery laws continue to be baffle: apparently one can have sex with others if one is in the process of a divorce, but not if one’s husband or wife puts “proceedings on hold.” As a commenter at Extra! Korea reasonably points out, in this latest case did the husband even know his wife had done so? Indeed, what if the estranged spouse is in the act while being informed? Hopefully, upon hearing that the recipient is otherwise occupied, then the FedEx guy would have the decency to wait for a few minutes before knocking on the door and handing over the legal documents…

No seriously, it’s hypotheticals like this that demonstrate the law’s absurdity, let alone the arbitrariness with which it is by definition applied in a country with one of the world’s largest prostitution industries.

5) The issue is a little old (see here for an earlier discussion), but still, Kim Heung-sook does a good job of summarizing what is problematic about the choice of Sin Saimdang on the new 50,000 won bill.

6) With parallels to affirmative-action politics in the US, some male students preparing to enter law school are preparing to file a petition with the Constitutional Court against Ehwa Womans University Law School for only admitting, well, women. I can see both sides’ arguments, but given that only 17% of the Korean legal judiciary are women, then personally I’m more in favor of retaining the restriction. It is after all, the only law school in the country that has it.

7) I’m usually very wary of articles about polls in Korean newspapers, but for what it’s worth this one of 921 university students revealed that 30% planned to get some form of cosmetic surgery this summer. Broken down by gender, the figures are 40% of women and 19% of men.

Choi Han-bit8) Choi Han-bit (최한빛) on the right (source) has passed the preliminary stage of the 2009 Supermodel Contest. Nothing remarkable about that you might say, except that she was actually born a man, undergoing a sex change in 2006. See here and here for more pictures of her, including when he appeared dressed as a woman on a television show in 2005. To their (rare) credit, the consensus of netizens is that she is no more artificial a woman than all the other contestants that have had cosmetic surgery operations.

9) Korea Beat has translated the Chosun Ilbo’s response to the avalanche of criticism to its week-long attack on foreign teachers, which naturally created some lively discussion (165 comments and counting); don’t miss Korean Media Watch’s take on it also, and for those few of you that all this is news to, see #1 here for many links to get you started.

10) In a strange article that may well have been written – ipso facto – with the intention of actually creating the trend it is ostensibly merely describing, the Chosun Ilbo reports that 30-something salarymen are now avid shoppers and consumers at department stores. I’m not sure I give much credence to an article that prints the opinions of someone who attributes this to the fact that “men in their 30s are for the first time able to go shopping without the help of a woman” though, even if it did come from a professor at SNU.

11) Completing the transitions between the sexes as it were via the images in this post, let me finish here by passing on two photoshoots of Korean men that both made waves last week. First, these pictures of SHINee (샤이니, pronounced “shiny”) from Vogue Girl (source):

Shinee

(Update: Here’s an interview where SHINee explain the concept behind the photoshoot)

And then these of Hyun Bin (현빈), from Cosmopolitan (source):

Hyun Bin Cosmopolitan

While it’s not for me to judge women’s tastes, I am sorely tempted to mention that, lacking pictures of actual transexual men with which to complete the set of woman-transexual woman-transexual man-man, then SHINee certainly provide a pretty decent alternative…!

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