I caught wind of this story elsewhere earlier, but now the Wall Street Journal has provided more color to it. The clip above is of a low-budget advertisement that seems to have annoyed an awful lot of Chinese. What it does is repeat the name of each animal in the Chinese zodiac thrice followed by the name of the wool-selling Olympic sponsor until all twelve animals are mentioned. Before its further opening up to the world, a lot of advertising in the PRC was of this ilk. As you will read below, it's the "caveman" approach: the objective is to club your brand into the consumers' consciousness. However, modern Chinese consumers have found this particular throwback nauseating given the proliferation of Westernized ads with "high" production values. (I find it charming in a juvenile sort of way, actually.)
Now, "face" is a very important concept in Chinese and other Asian societies. What this ad seems to have done is remind consumers of the olden days when the country was not regarded as a major economic player and el cheapo ads ruled the airwaves. Many are now calling for boycotts of the company, but not for the typical reasons of corporate social responsibility (CSR) offenses--unless you consider annoying television audiences a CSR offense. It may seem odd that a low-budget ad is thought of as an affront to national pride, but that it's done:
The TV commercial everyone has been talking about lately in
is the one that has tested everyone's nerves. Heng Yuan Xiang Group, a top Chinese wool producer, wanted to celebrate its sponsorship of this summer's Beijing Olympics; it shares sponsor status with the likes of United Parcel Service Inc. and Anheuser-Busch Cos.'s Budweiser brand. So the wool company began running a 60-second ad in February, during the celebration of Lunar China 's biggest holiday. New Year, China
In the bare-bones ad, a squeaky girl's voice chirps out a triplicate list of each of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, interspersed with repetitions of the company's slogan by an adult voice. Cartoon zodiac animals hop across the screen over a plain, white background with the company's logo. As in: "Rat rat rat! Heng Yuan Xiang, official sponsor of the Olympic Games! Ox ox ox! Heng Yuan Xiang, official sponsor of the Olympic Games! Tiger tiger tiger!..."
When they first saw the ad, some people thought their TV sets were broken. Viewers savaged the commercial in print media and online, some calling it intolerable or singling it out as the worst spot they had ever seen. It has spawned Internet parodies, including one with a goat at a news conference apologizing "to everyone -- to the animals in the commercial, the customers, their families and every single person in this country." Other marketers complained that consumers were changing the channel when the spot came on, ad executives say. The spot ran repeatedly on Chinese TV from Feb. 6 to Feb. 12. On Feb. 17, Heng Yuan Xiang called a press conference to explain that it had stopped running the commercial.
The firm didn't respond to requests for comment. State-controlled news service Xinhua quoted Ding Xiuwei, whom it identified as a media consultant with the company, as saying the ad was meant "to make people laugh." But the backlash suggests that increasingly sophisticated Chinese consumers are rejecting low-budget, low-quality marketing.
State-run Chinese TV has long been home to bad, and often repetitive, ads. Heng Yuan Xiang, in fact, pioneered a spartan style of commercials in the 1990s that milked 15-second time slots for maximum impact. For a decade, its five-second refrain, "Heng Yuan Xiang, Sheep Sheep Sheep," voiced over the same company logo, was rebroadcast three times in rapid succession. The ads -- all made in-house -- made Heng Yuan Xiang an icon.
When Richard Tan, chief executive of Havas SA's Euro RSCG agency in greater China, first came to the market 11 years ago, almost all local advertisers had adopted what he calls the "caveman approach" -- beating consumers over the head with the same message.
"This approach has gradually faded, and more Chinese advertisers are increasingly sophisticated with their advertising," Mr. Tan says. Heng Yuan Xiang is "still living in a 'lost world' with this approach," he adds.
The ad's refrain of phrases such as 'Pig pig pig! Heng Yuan Xiang, official sponsor of the Olympic Games!' wore out viewers' patience.
The arrival of foreign ad agencies in the 1990s, together with the rapid expansion of the nation's middle class, altered Chinese consumers' expectations…These days, production values on many Chinese ads can be on par with those in the
U.S.or Europe. China's ad market, valued at more than $60 billion annually based on rate-card figures compiled by Nielsen Co., is expected to overtake Japan's soon as the world's second-largest in spending terms after the U.S. Domestic Chinese brands now are held to high standards. So the recent Heng Yuan Xiang stunt sent a message that the company hadn't grown, ad executives say.
"The expectation is that the company would have produced something better if their fortunes had been good," says Jeremy Sy, planning director for Omnicom Group's TBWA in
. "The fact that the ad is not much better than the first ad suggests that, unlike almost every other company in China , Heng Yuan Xiang hasn't actually improved." TBWA works for Games partner Adidas AG. China
Moreover, the popularity of the Web in
is putting consumers in control. The ad has been posted online and viewed about one million times on Chinese video-sharing sites. "Friends, let's join together to resist Heng Yuan Xiang!!! In pursuit of profit they have done a great moral travesty, and monopolized our airtime!!!" wrote one blogger on popular online forum Tianya after watching the ad. "I hereby solemnly swear: in the one life I have, I will never purchase anything by Heng Yuan Xiang." China
Heng Yuan Xiang has said the backlash is buzz. "Overnight, Heng Yuan Xiang's 'twelve animals ad' has become a household discussion topic across the country," the company said in a statement Feb. 21. "With its pithy message, the 'twelve animals ad' rings in the public's ear and has again become an advertising sensation."
Says Euro RSCG's Mr. Tan: "I've seen very few cases where consumers were annoyed into brand loyalty."