I lived in China like a travelling educational storyteller, though technically I was an English teacher at three universities over the course of two years. One of my pet themes in class was advertising – both because it made for a creative, varied lesson, and because I found myself bewildered and frustrated by the naïve views I encountered, even when working with a highly educated and critical section of society, namely university students (and sometimes teachers). Chinese students assured me that advertising was a source of useful information about exciting new products. If I had 100 yuan for every time I’ve been told adverts make our lives more ‘colourful’ – a word so overused it began to grate on my ears – I would by now be rolling in red notes with portraits of Mao printed on them.
Last summer I tested my advertising lesson at a prestigious university in north-eastern Beijing: a debate, analysis of real adverts, and then working in groups as ad executives to flog a paperclip at an outrageous price. The vast majority of students, including a lecturer or two, saw no problem with the notion of advertising as a ‘public service’. How else would we know what wonderful consumer goods we could buy? Helped by a couple of students who took a more sceptical view, I countered that advertising was about profit, about big companies with pots of money aggressively pushing products. I must then have said something about the celebrities such as basketball idol Yao Ming and Taiwan pop stars A-Mei and Jay Chou, who were no doubt paid a handsome sum to act as the face of McDonald’s, Lemon Iced Tea and the clothing chain Metersbonwe respectively. Curse it – I had become a preacher!
If attitudes in universities are any indicator, mainland China’s relatively recent Open Door Policy and its embrace of cut-throat capitalism under Deng Xiaoping have left people’s understanding of advertising lagging behind. After 1949, the main form of ‘advertising’ was party propaganda, which still plays a major role.
Today, fast-food chains that for many Chinese people represent ‘Western cuisine’ advertise aggressively. Pizza Hut signs hang like fruit from trees in Chongqing: their adverts seem to target affluent, elegant families who are depicted eating happily together. The cheapest pizza at the Hut costs twice as much as many working people’s daily earnings. And don’t get me started on the ice-cream company that charges 25 yuan – more than a day’s salary for many – for a single luxurious scoop! On Shanghai’s Bund, people beg abjectly beneath shrubs sponsored by Häagen-Dazs.
Starbucks is almost an index of sophistication. While Starbucks seems to spread simply by virtue of being Starbucks (despite insisting on Western prices), Nescafé appears on a mission to convert all inmates of Tsinghua University, Beijing, to the joys of caffeine addiction. The main canteen boasts its own Nescafé coffee lounge, where visitors can admire images of attractive people drinking Nescafé. There’s an arrow ‘leading you to the great taste of Nescafé’. On the wall there’s a go-getting guy holding a Nescafé mug and clenching his fist, and a stylish girl with sunglasses propped on her head. The Nescafé room regularly hosts special events – an art and architecture presentation, the launch of a new student poetry society.
There are also promotions. The shopping street or the supermarket is taken over by stands loaded with boxes of Nescafé, coffee flows in unlimited supply for a few days, soothing music plays, attractive young students from other universities ask us if we’d like a cup.
With Western-style advertising come Western-style notions about consumption. In the canteens and shops on campus, sometimes a soft drink is the only option – edging out more traditional tea, soya milk or boiled water. Disposable plastic bottles or paper cups are replacing the reusable flasks and cups that many Chinese people carry with them.
Britain – not China – made me cynical about advertising. In Britain you can answer the phone to hear a pre-recorded advert, not even a tele-sales human being bothering to waste their time peddling double-glazing. Advertising in Britain through its sheer pervasiveness either distorts our sense of reality or, if it doesn’t manage that, irritates the hell out of us. In China, it is well on its way to the same wonderful destination. The only difference is that people on the Chinese mainland (as opposed to Hong Kong) appear to be almost defenceless against this level of indoctrination to consume.