A botched ad campaign

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A botched ad campaign


Joe McPherson

This month, an ad for bulgogi appeared in The New York Times. It was the latest in a series of ads self-proclaimed PR expert Seo Kyung-duk has commissioned for years. Usually these ads get a lot of press inside Korea but are ignored elsewhere. Yet this time, three major American news outlets reported on it: Sports Illustrated, National Public Radio (NPR) and the advertising industry trade publication Adweek. None of these outlets had kind things to say about this ad. They were confused and thought the ad was strange. Adweek called it “the year’s oddest celebrity endorsement.”


This is bad PR. For years, those of us involved in this industry have been frustrated by these horribly run branding campaigns. Not only are they ineffective, they are hurting the efforts others have made in successfully promoting Korea.

This bulgogi ad, featuring Texas Rangers baseball player Choo Shin-soo, encapsulates everything that is wrong about branding Korea. It’s a great lesson for people learning about good and bad PR.

First, it reveals Korean ad agencies’ overreliance on celebrity endorsements. Ace Metrix, a television analytics firm, found in repeated studies that celebrity endorsements scored poorly compared to other forms of ads. They’re the least effective and least creative form of advertising.

Marketers need to research their market before going in there, a mistake Korean marketers frequently make. There is a Texas baseball player advertising in a New York newspaper. New York Yankees fans aren’t interested in Texas baseball players. If the celebrity in your celebrity endorsement isn’t famous to your audience, he isn’t a celebrity.

Most foreigners don’t know who these celebrities are: CN BLUE, Wondergirls and Lee Young-ae. They are all popular to fans of K-pop and Korean dramas but no one else.

The English in these ads is always awkward. The recent ad says that Choo ate bulgogi to get through spring training. How does that make bulgogi appealing? It doesn’t connect with the target audience at all. The headline starts with the question, “Bulgogi?” It doesn’t answer it. It shows a pile of meat being presented by an unknown Asian man.

Does it even make sense to advertise it at all? One of Seo Kyoung-duk’s campaigns advertised makgeolli in The Wall Street Journal. Yet makgeolli is hardly exported farther than Japan because of its short shelf life. How are Americans going to buy makgeolli if they can’t get it?

These ads copy the format of the American “Got Milk?” campaign of the 1990s but with bland corporate Helvetica fonts. There’s an insidious Konglish term shuffled around in business boardrooms: “benchmarking.” The original meaning of benchmarking is testing your product against your competitors. In Korean business, it means to copy what others are doing. Looking at another ad and copying it is not benchmarking. It’s lazy.

The response from the American media was puzzlement. They didn’t know what organization was connected to it, other than a web URL for ForTheNextGeneration.com. The website itself was mocked for its stark, outdated design and jumble of unfocused over-the-top nationalistic messages. Nationalism doesn’t appeal to people not from that nation. Humorist David Sedaris said, “Most countries have national slogans of their own, none of which are, ‘We are No. 2.’”

The truth about Seo Kyung-duk and other brand “experts” is they are not advertising to foreigners. They are advertising to Koreans. Whenever there is a large ad in The New York Times or a billboard in Times Square, it is all over the Korean media but quickly forgotten overseas. It doesn’t take a PR expert to put an ad in The New York Times. Any idiot with a lot of money can do that.

A true PR manager would ask the essential question: What return do we get from this huge investment? Is that the most efficient way to spend our funds? Loud, obnoxious ads in The New York Times aren’t effective, they’re annoying. The New York Times isn’t the only paper Americans read. Times Square is only visited by tourists, and they’re not paying attention to the ads. For the money these people are shelling out, they are reaching an embarrassingly limited audience.

“Embarrassment” is the word, because these ads are having a negative effect. A true PR expert does not waste money on awkward ads in The New York Times. He works to get articles in The New York Times, popular blogs, TV shows, local newspapers while spending as little money as possible. Are these branding experts like Seo interested in promoting Korea or promoting their own status?

*The author is the founder and president of the Korean food site ZenKimchi.

By Joe McPherson

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