The Big Yam | The Nation


The Big Yam

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Perhaps the more interesting blind spot is in Wang's discussion of Chinese advertisers' relationship to youth culture. It has become commonplace to observe that the Tiananmen Square generation, which took such risks to achieve political freedoms, has become satisfied with consumer freedoms instead. In 1979, the year commercial advertising returned to China, the Chinese government set a disturbing precedent when it replaced the famous Democracy Wall--the first significant post-Cultural Revolution flowering of political diversity--with the equivalent of a billboard. In the 1990s, the marketplace of new political ideas collapsed into the more conventional marketplace of new products. And so far in China, advertisers, rather than new political leaders, have tried to reach the younger generation by appealing to their residual rebelliousness.

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John Feffer
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author of North Korea...

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Consider the example of Beck's beer commercials. In one particularly blatant example that Wang cites, a field of sunflowers faces east, an allusion to the Maoist song "The East Is Red" and the tradition of equating Mao with the sun, and sunflowers with the loyal masses. But in this ad, a bottle of Beck's appears in the west, attracting the attention of one quirky sunflower. "Listen to yourself," the tag line goes. "Drink Beck's." Wang writes, "Branding is more about resonance than inculcation. What Beck's delivered was nothing more than the younger generation's desire to go against the grain in an era bound by political taboos. Instead of staking out a new cultural position, the beer simply unearthed what was on the minds of the unruly youth at that particular historical juncture." Chinese brands have done the same, appealing to "acting cool" and "having fun." As Wang puts it, "Rebellious postures are chic, but they have little to do with iconoclasm."

Here, her discussion would have benefited from Thomas Frank's study of how US advertisers mined the counterculture in the 1970s to sell more products. His Conquest of Cool exhumes what now seem such transparently uncool efforts to market to the new demographic. Columbia Records ran an ad in 1968 that assured record buyers that "the Man can't bust our music." Braniff hired Andy Warhol to appear in its ads. Before Apple positioned itself as the revolutionary trying to topple totalitarian IBM, Pepsi was proclaiming itself an insurgent taking on the monolithic Coke.

China may well be different. But advertising is incorrigibly the same. Its goals are to create desires and sell more products. Although they change according to time and place, the strategies obey a similar logic. China has its 170-plus niche markets, its 80,000-plus advertising firms. And Wang points out some of its interesting quirks. For instance, for the peak sixty-five seconds of television time that follow the national news and precede the weather forecast, China Central Television holds an auction and companies pay top yuan for the five-second spot that might catapult them into brand heaven. True, the TV market is shaped by the monopoly hold the state-owned network maintains. But even this model is eroding with the proliferation of cable offerings. China's market is different, but is a fundamentally new kind of economy emerging there? Wang's survey of the new Chinese advertising reveals greater convergence than a world of difference.

Several years ago, I interviewed a Costco manager at the opening of the retailer's third major store in the Tokyo area. Costco's approach of selling in bulk to consumers with tiny kitchens and a preference for walking to local stores for fresh produce seemed so quixotic that I couldn't help asking whether the company had encountered resistance. At first, the manager said, the Japanese were taken aback by Flintstone-sized packages of meat and industrial-strength cans of cling peaches. But Costco persisted, and gradually Tokyo consumers began to adapt. "The Japanese had to learn how to shop," the manager told me.

Costco wasn't thinking like the Japanese. Despite a couple of distinctively Japanese flourishes--free samples of lychee liqueur, a larger than usual section devoted to rice--it was pursuing its own cookie-cutter approach of supersized portions. For all the money and research poured into local ad campaigns, advertising agencies can't hide the fact that they are pushers, trying to get people to buy things they hitherto didn't know they wanted. Costco pushes bulk. McDonald's in China, as elsewhere in the world, embarked on a campaign to make children into consumers. Motorola wants to turn peasants into cellphone users. Haier wants Chinese peasants to put away their washboards and buy machines--if they want to scrub their yams as an intermediate stage between feudalism and socialism, so be it.

Wang has a more liberating view of consumers. In her analysis, they are not mindless robots buying whatever is dangled before their slavering mouths, any more than readers of romances, in the classic text of the reader-response school of literary criticism by Janice Radway (Reading the Romance), are mindless devourers of trash. Readers and consumers have agency. They are subjects as well as objects. They can be stubborn things, refusing to be pigeonholed into a particular demographic. Wang describes "neo-tribes" that, with their rapid shape-shifting, confound advertisers' categories, multiply China's niche markets and further lengthen the "long tail" that has replaced the mass market.

Wang wants not just to break down unnuanced distinctions between local and global or between capitalist and communist. She describes a blurring of production and consumption as consumers participate in the creation of brands. Children watch the Haier cartoons and then talk to their parents about them. YouTubers spread the next generation of Haier Brothers videos more effectively than any top-down campaign. Bloggers and social networkers are drawn into the marketing chain. "Prosumers" create content--songs, videos, dances, artwork--that marketers then use to give their products authenticity.

Wang's book is a valuable contribution to a new kind of anthropology that studies the reciprocal relationship between culture and advertising. But Brand New China is not just a description of China's culture and the neo-tribes changing it. A certain utopianism lurks in her book. She envisions a future in which consumers of the world unite and throw off the shackles of intellectual property rights and corporate information control. But this is a world in which politics practically disappears and the United States and China become two halves of the same giant shopping mall. The only significant conflict will pit a billion prosumers hankering after glocalized brands against the Costco cookie-cutters. It is not a pretty picture. Oh, brand new world that has such people in it.

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