Selling products with sex and deathKorea’s television advertising agencies are on a mission of shock and awe, and their arsenal is formidable: premarital sex, widows in mourning and gay men wrestling are just a few things that have been blasted onto TV sets across the country.
That the advertisements are intended to shock is beyond dispute. What makes the reaction to these ads different, however, is how muted it seems. By bringing up taboo subjects, the ads seem to be making controversy less controversial. Conservative mores are out, liberal tolerance is in.
In one recent commercial for a mobile phone brand, soft music plays as a man slowly touches another man’s chest. The two smile wantingly at each other as the music grows stronger. The camera zooms out and suddenly the men are moving fast ― they’re in a wrestling match. Pan to a member of the audience, who pulls headphones from his ears. The romantic music is replaced by the roar of the crowd.
“We used the notion of gay sex to emphasize that images have totally different meanings depending on the sounds that go with them,” said Gwon O-sung, the TBWA Korea executive in charge of the advertisement.
The topic was hardly original. Commercials like “The Gay Couple” for SK Telecom touched on the issue first. The wrestling commercial, however, was blatantly sexual in a totally new way.
The advertisement might have offended some viewers, but it was definitely successful, topping a survey by TVCF.co.kr, an Internet portal dedicated to advertisements.
Even mentions of death, a subject much more shunned here than in the West, are being used to sell services. In a recent advertisement for Kyobo Life, a man gently offers condolences to his wife about the loss of her mother. It was the first Korean advertisement to feature a black mourning dress. The viewer response was divided between empathy for the characters and depression by the scene.
“We broached the subject ever so slightly in order to highlight the period in one’s life where one first discovers the need for insurance,” said Lee Yeong-sil, an employee at Welcomm, the agency that made the ad.
Though rampant in Korean movies, premarital sex is rarely mentioned on television ― which is why Sunkist knew its advertisement for its sour lemon drink would hit a nerve. In the commercial, a college student tells her boyfriend that she’s been eating a lot of sour food recently. “My brother’s wife said the same thing when she was pregnant,” he replies, only to make the connection an instant later.
So why are commercials designed to shock hailed as marketing successes?
One reason is that the taboos touched upon are no longer quite so potent. The advertising industry knows that gay or premarital sex is no longer offensive to young Koreans. As Gwon Mi-gyeon, an employee of Welcomm, puts it: “It’s a happy marriage between the industry’s need to push the envelope and changing attitudes in society.”
Others say it’s just a flash in the pan.
“It’s already been five years since international advertisers began using shock tactics,” said An Hae-ik, a team leader at Cheil Communications. “The recent advertisements here are just a delayed response.”
Even earlier, in mid-1990s, the fashion brand Benetton ran commercials featuring a nun kissing a priest, a dying AIDS patient, a blood-stained uniform from a dead soldier and a black woman breast-feeding a white baby. The next fad, Mr. An said, would be to address hidden desires.
Some say that the commercials speak to the young generation, which is frustrated with social conservatism and seeks an outlet for youthful rebellion. “Rules are made to be broken”, says Kim Hong-tak, an ad critic. “The viewers feel a sense of pleasure when moral boundaries are pushed.”
Or the attention garnered by such ads could be simply due to good production. The commercials are made by top ad agencies and mix good acting and production technology with marketing acumen. Taboo or not, they’ll only continue if they move products.
by Jung Hyun-mok