Dreams of Gold on Market ShelvesThe country is awash with gold. Although that observation may be hard to believe as you read yet another news story about the economic downturn, take another look around, especially in department stores and on liquor store shelves, and you will agree that gold is everywhere.
At Shinsegae Department Store's Kangnam branch, more than half the household appliances on display are in gold tone. Of the 10 new washing machine models introduced this year, five are gold-colored, and consumers have been very responsive. "About 80 percent of the washing machines bought these days are in gold," said a sales assistant at the store.
Gold has always held a special allure － what else can explain the energy spent searching for the fictional Eldorado? At a practical level, gold is a precious metal that is readily converted to cash. Koreans, for example, favor giving gifts of 24 karat gold, in the form of rings, tortoises and other lucky animal figurines as an alternative to cash. Gold jewelry has been used since ancient times to signify power and wealth, and Oriental medicine claims special healing powers for gold.
Upscale restaurants and nightclubs have been treating their favored clientele with sushi and drinks sprinkled with gold powder for several years. That exclusivity, however, was brought to the masses when Bohae Brewery released Matchsoon Special Blending, a plum liqueur in which tiny gold flakes are suspended, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the introduction of Matchsoon at the end of last year. That seems to have sparked the current craze for gold. The factory price of the gold-added drink is 4,510 won per bottle compared to the 3,710 won for the regular version. "For an extra 800 won, people get a feeling of luxury, a feeling of being special and exclusive," said Choi Jung-kyu, a Bohae Brewery official.
Sales of the premium plum liquor have been brisk. Three million bottles were sold in the first five months after the drink was launched, a pleasant surprise for the brewery, which then changed the name of the new drink to the more easily remembered Matchsoon Gold. "We did sell more than we expected but that figure does not represent a runaway success," Mr. Choi commented.
Modesty aside, you know you have done something right when your competitor comes up with a similar product. Doosan Corporation last month introduced its gold drink, Seoljungmae Gold. A 385 milliliter bottle contains 7 milligrams of 99.9 percent pure gold flakes that float and twirl in the transparent bottle, sparkling as they catch the light.
Although adding gold to the drinks theoretically should not make any difference to the taste, some drinkers report that they are milder and go down more smoothly. "It is probably all psychological," Mr. Choi suggested, apparently mindful of the recent announcement by the Korea Food and Drug Administration that ingestion of gold leaves has no health benefits. The government agency, at the same time, issued a strong warning that it would bring charges against companies that advertise false or exaggerated claims about the health-promoting properties of gold.
Despite the warning, some companies are undeterred in their claim that their gold-added products have special properties. "Tiny flakes of gold leaf massaged onto the skin are absorbed through the pores and act like tiny gold acupuncture needles inside the body, promoting circulation" said Lee Eun-sung, president of GM Corporation, maker of Millesienne, a "gold soap." Each 100 gram bar of soap contains 50 milligrams of 99.9 percent pure gold leaf, which the company says has a detoxifying effect, leading to diminished acne, age spots and freckles. The soaps are sold in local duty-free shops and Korean Air in-flight shops. The high price of the soap, $35 for a box of three, does not seem to dampen public enthusiasm for supposed "miracle" beauty products － the company last year sold some one million bars of soap. Encouraged by the sale of the soap, the company even came up with tiny 24 karat gold leaf flakes that can be mixed with regular skin care products.
There is no denying that there is some resistance to all this "gold marketing," coming at a time when the economy is not doing too well. "We marketed the gold soaps at local department stores in 1999 but withdrew because of adverse publicity," Mr. Choi recalled. Expensive soaps embedded with gold, for many the epitome of luxury, were not politically correct when the country was just recovering from its devastating economic crisis. The company is still reluctant to enter the local market.
"We have no plans to add gold to our soju, even if it is all the rage. Adding gold to a 'poor man's drink' goes against the product image," said Kim Young-jin, a public relations official at Jinro, a local brewery.
As for the present popularity of gold, Mr. Choi attributed it to the downturn in the economy. "Gold, a symbol of wealth, becomes popular when the economy is in a slump, as people become nostalgic for the more affluent past," he said.
"For an extra 800 won, people get a feeling of luxury, a feeling of being special."
by Kim Hoo-ran