Advertising in the broadest sense of making goods publicly known developed as early as commodity exchange took shape in human society. In China, as elsewhere, the earliest medium of advertising was oral and even musical. The Book of Odes recorded an entry in the ‘Hymns to Zhou’ which tells anecdotes of street pedlars playing bamboo flutes to sell candies. Other variations of musical ads such as tinkers’ clappers, waste-collectors’ bells and the copper gongs of travelling sundriesmen are still heard all over China. Human voice is another commercial medium that hardly went out of date. Those growing up in 1950s and 1960s Taiwan will recall the melodious voice of soft bean curd vendors resonating through the night and at dawn. And today, tourists strolling down the bustling Snack Street at Wangfujing in downtown Beijing are still earnestly saluted by young shop clerks hawking their culinary specialties.
When the market developed further, the written word overtook the oral medium as a means of publicity. Signboards inscribed in calligraphy went up as another popular form of advertising that has persisted since the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and still exists today. Two of the historic store tablets in Beijing today, ‘Tongren tang’ for Chinese medicine and ‘Quanjude’ for Beijing Roast Duck, first greeted the consumer public during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Numerous rhymed couplet commercials mounted on scrolls and hung up at taverns enjoyed their own heyday during the same period. However, the first Chinese commercial in the genuine modern sense, complete with copywriting and a logo, is said to be a print ad made by a needle shop of the Liu family in Jinan during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). The ad extolled the fine quality of the Liu needles and used the visual of a white rabbit holding a medicine pounder as its store insignia.
Modern advertising in China came into being after the Opium War (1840). It departed from the random endeavours of individual advertisers to evolve into an organized guild commanding a vast network of commercial information and persuasion depending upon modern mass media such as radio and the paper. Modern print ads in China first appeared in foreign-owned papers Shanghai xinbao (Shanghai New Post, c. 1861) and Shen bao (1872). But in the early twentieth century, the Chinese masses had limited access to radio and print media. Therefore, foreign advertisers resorted to a different medium, one most familiar to the common folk. These were Chinese New Year Poster (nianhua) ads, which remain popular today. They cover a wide range of subjects—scenic spots, portraits, historical figures, Confucian legends of filial piety, religious rituals, and still lifes of flowers, fish and animals. In most instances, these early modern poster ads bore little relationship to the product being sold, which occupied an obscure corner of the canvas. A notable example was an ad portraying a traditionally dressed young woman breast-feeding her mother-in-law, while the product advertised was a flashlight. Commodities featured frequently in those nianhua ads were cigarettes, of both foreign and domestic brands.
Print ads also appeared in pop magazines and journals during the May Fourth period (1917–21). Notable examples include Dongfang Magazine and Good Companion (Liangyou). Even Communist publications (e.g. Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu’s Weekly Review (1918) and Mao Zedong’s Xiang River Review (1919)) courted advertisers and used ads as instruments of a political ideology promoting Chinese goods, progressive journals and anti-imperialism. In the commercial hub of Shanghai, a booming industry of advertising design and nianhua art rose to meet the demands of commercial clients. Most famous among those designer artists were Zhang Guangyu, Liang Dingming and Zheng Mantuo. But the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) brought an abrupt end to commercial advertising. A small handful of advertising agencies that flourished in Shanghai and other cities in the 1930s were also nipped in the bud. It was not until the early 1980s that the agency would re-emerge as a dominant player of commercial communications.
The first TV commercial of post-Mao China—for a domestic tonic wine—was aired by Shanghai Television Station in January 1979. Later that year, the municipal government of Beijing moved the Democracy Wall at Xidan to Yuetan Park and turned the original site into an advertising wall. Outdoor billboards began to mushroom. Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing soon became the three pillars of advertising. The Association of Chinese Advertising (Zhongguangxie) was founded in 1983, mediating between agencies and the official regulator of the sector—the State Administration of Industry and Commerce. The Advertising Law came into effect in 1995. Regulation was focused on deceitful advertisements. Comparative advertising is banned. So are tobacco ads. But, with the exception of medicine, the law is not considered cumbersome for most product categories. More important were rules governing the entry of transnational agencies in the mid 1980s, whose presence—328 companies at the end of 2000—has had a beneficial impact on local talent training. Increasingly, however, as local agencies became more seasoned practitioners, a discursive contestation between local and transnational practice developed. The year 2001 marked the height of the controversy over the American model of the 4A (Association of Accredited Advertising Agency) and the publication of other critical literature challenging Western marketing concepts. But the industry’s craving for foreign models and methodologies has also given birth to several trade magazines that are instrumental to the shaping of the guild consciousness of Chinese ad men and women—Chinese Advertising (1981), International Advertising (1985) and Modern Advertising (1994). By early 2000, China had more than 64,800 advertising units with a total billing expected to rise up to US$ 11 billion. The top five categories of highest advertising business volume are household appliances, food and beverages, medicines, cosmetics and real estate.
Media in post-Mao China have also grown in parallel. Besides tier 1 cities, radio coverage is relatively low. Online advertising is still young. Television is the most popular medium for advertisers. In Guangzhou and Shenzhen, however, the newspaper has upstaged TV as the most advantageous medium of advertising. The national TV audience amounts to 1 billion, with an average viewing time for adults stretched to 175 minutes daily. The 2001 state policy of consolidating cable and terrestrial network will shrink China’s astounding number of 3,280 TV stations into a more controllable pool. This decree, however, has weakened significantly the bargaining power of ad agencies to negotiate with provincial media vendors. In China, where media are state owned, changing media policies impacts advertising in a way unprecedented in world advertising history.
Post-socialist media policy is a double-edged sword. In fact, a decisive momentum that helped jump-start the advertising industry also came from a historic policy change. In 1993, Beijing gave freer rein to news media to run their operations as businesses rather than public institutional units. With decreasing state subsidies, the media had to court advertisers for new sources of revenue. CCTV (Chinese Central Television), for instance, held public auctions between 1994 and 2000 to crown an annual ‘champion bidder’ who paid world record-breaking prices for prime-time spots. The most publicized scandal was the bid made by Qinchi Liquor Distillery in 1996–320 million RMB (approximately $40 million) for a five-second spot. For more than a decade, the agency-media relationship was tilted in the latter’s favour. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, proliferating media outlets turned the media market from a seller’s to a buyer’s market. The old scenario of ‘weak agency, strong media’ is now in flux. Since early 2001, the media landscape has been framed in new terms of competition. It was CCTV and its emerging rival—a united front of elite provincial stations—who were busy vying for clients who now enjoy the luxury of making media choices strategically. The old relationship between media and agency was further adjusted because of the rise of powerful media-buying networks in the mid 1990s. Primarily subsidiaries belonging to joint-venture agencies (e.g. Ogilvy, J.P.Thompson, Saatchi and Saatchi, and Grey, etc.), these networks have the advantage of buying advertising spots in bulk, thus offsetting to a certain degree the weak negotiating power of transnational agencies in their dealings with traditionally Guanxi-based Chinese media. MindShare, Zenith Media and Mediacom are a few examples. They gain an edge over local media brokers because they provide media planning strategies based on quantitative media research and analysis. Increasingly, clients are keen on understanding brand relationships and the media consumption patterns of consumer segments through those research tools.
The media, of course, were not the lone determining factor for the swift development of post-Mao advertising. Another momentum came from the industrial/commercial sector. In the late 1980s, Apollo (Taiyang shen), a health-drink company in Guangdong, imported a new management system, CIS (Corporate Identity System), from Japan. Its investment on the sub-system VI (visual identity) brought about a huge success. The company logo was turned into a household image overnight. Corporate China has been fascinated with the cash value of the VI ever since. Commercial logos abound in all mediums. Together with the notion of brand names, they fed the imagination of the commercial sector for a ‘corporate culture’ (qiye wenhua) that is rooted in the concept of ‘culture as capital’.
Increasingly, Chinese advertisers were coached to comprehend the links between branding and a corporate culture that sells. To better serve and communicate the brand value, transnational agencies in China have been busy making a transition from ad agencies into communications companies since the mid 1990s. The 360-degree brand stewardship of Ogilvy is a notable example. The integration of various disciplines within an agency—account service, planning, creative, accounting, public relations and direct/interactive marketing—is now the going model for full-service agencies of the future. Although local clients are slow to buy the trend, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (2002) will move advertising in the direction of brand-building rather than simple ad production.
Wang, Jing (2001). ‘Introduction’. In idem (ed.), Chinese Popular Culture and the State. Special issue of positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1.
——(2001). ‘Culture as Leisure, Culture as Capital’. positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1: 69–104.
Yu, Hong and Zhengqiang, Deng (2000). Zhongguo dangdai guanggaoshi [The History of Contemporary Chinese Advertising]. Changsha: Hunan kexue jishu chubanshe.
Zhao, Shen (2001). Zhongguo jindai guanggao wenhua [The Culture of Modern Chinese Advertising]. Changchun: Jilin kexue jishu chubanshe.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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