Advertisements and Censorship in China

Despite gaining the usual approval, the Pond's advertisement lasted only a week on Chinese TV screens.

To Western eyes, Unilever's Ogilvy-created TV commercial for Pond's didn't come across as offensive. Tastefully photographed, it featured a young and fully clothed actress extolling the virtues of the skincare brand.

Yet the ad was pulled within a week, as the featured actress, Tang Wei, was banned from all mainland Chinese media outlets. Is this a sign that advertising censorship in China is tightening?

Advertising in China is a huge business, with adspend figures that have jumped from $4.7 billion to $14.2 billion in seven years. Ads have to go through several stages of approval and, as representatives from Ogilvy insisted during the height of the Tang Wei furore, the agency had made sure that all hoops had been jumped through.

For an ad to be approved in China, agencies keep an open dialogue with the China Advertising Association(CAA). Purportedly a self-regulating body, the CAA can be more accurately described as a quasi-governmental consultative unit set up by the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, which retains the power to accept or decline ads. The CAA is known to have a pretty firm grasp of what the SAIC is likely to crack down on.

Another stage of approval exists at the level of TV stations: CCTV, the ironically named Chinese state TV channel, has right of approval or rejection of ads. While approval at regional level does not necessarily mean national CCTV approval, or vice versa, once it has been granted, it's not commonly withdrawn.

Unilever's attempt to establish Pond's as a high-end brand on the Chinese market saw a deal brokered with Tang Wei, one of the stars of Lust, Caution, as the focal point. Lust, Caution was heavily edited by Sarft, the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and TV, when shown in Chinese cinemas, but was widely available on DVD. As Lust, Caution is Tang's only film to date, her image is closely aligned with that of her character.

The Unilever spot had been cleared with the usual government bodies but ran into trouble with Sarft. Even by Chinese standards, Sarft has a pretty nebulous remit. Its main purpose is to oversee state media, but it also censors material that might offend Chinese cultural standards and government.

Not everyone agrees that this is stifling advertising agencies' creativity in China.
"You've got to look at what you can do within the restrictions and get really creative with that," Donovan argues. Another China agency insider adds: "Sure, it's vague, but it means we can push the boundaries and see how far we can go - it's still easier than advertising in Europe when it comes to restrictions."

Whatever the impact on advertising creativity turns out to be, there's little doubt that the recent scandals have done nothing to stifle the power of advertising in China. "Ogilvy got everyone to talk about Pond's thanks to the Tang Wei scandal," David Wolfe, the Wolfe group Asia chief executive, points out.


1 comment:

A.Quek said...

I feel that censorship in China is abit harsh in the sense that they refused to let a budding young star of theirs appear in an advertisment. The fact that the media is dictated by the country is also very worrying, as this means that there are probably alot of restrictions imposed, thereby limiting exposure to the chinese people.