The Big Yam

Headquarters was worried. Complaints were flooding in from the Chinese countryside about the quality of the new Haier washing machines. The water pipes were defective, the peasants told the Chinese manufacturer. But when the Haier team went to investigate, they were surprised to discover that the pipes were not broken or poorly fitted. Rather, they were clogged with yam skins. The peasants had been washing their dinner ingredients, not their clothes. An American manufacturer might have lectured the consumers about the proper uses of a washing machine. Haier’s CEO, Zhang Ruimin, decided instead to design a machine with wider pipes that could wash both clothes and large root vegetables. He called it the Big Yam, and the machine became a big seller in the Chinese countryside.

The Big Yam is only one of several stories that have accumulated around Zhang Ruimin. On another occasion, Haier’s larger-than-life CEO ordered seventy-six defective refrigerators sledgehammered in front of workers rather than submit to the usual practice of covering up the snafu and palming off the merchandise as low-level bribes. Zhang videotaped the incident as an example of Haier’s commitment to quality control. Then there’s the story of the Little Prince, a cheap little Haier freezer that Chinese urbanites bought in droves because they no longer had time to shop for groceries every day but also didn’t have the money for a whole new fridge.

Haier is the face of the new China. As a global company and one of the largest appliance manufacturers in the world, it has helped transform the slogan “Made in China” into “Made by China.” It maintains a cooperative rather than antagonistic relationship with the Chinese state. It has developed products that serve the specific needs of the Chinese consumer. And it is part of a new wave of branding and advertising that has explained, shaped and translated market economics for more than a billion people.

In some ways, Zhang is the Mao of consumer goods. He thinks big, makes bold pronouncements, attracts acolytes, trumpets his Communist Party membership and attends to the specific attributes of Chinese society. On the other hand, he’s a running-dog capitalist who makes a lot of money. It’s an open question as to whether Zhang and his cohort of Chinese CEOs are either spreading American-style capitalism across the country or participating in a substantially different economic reform “with Chinese characteristics.” Similarly, it’s not certain whether China is advancing a state-centric “Beijing consensus” at the global level to counter the more laissez-faire “Washington consensus” or simply following the West’s cues by joining the World Trade Organization and acceding to the general trends of globalization.

In Brand New China, Jing Wang uses Chinese advertising as an optic through which to scrutinize this tension between Eastern and Western approaches to the market, between the Haier of the Big Yam and the global company that many Americans don’t even realize is Chinese. A professor of Chinese cultural studies at MIT, she is well situated with one foot in each camp: straddling not just China and the United States but also advertising and academia. Her book is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-written tour d’horizon of branding and advertising strategy informed by her knowledge of the field and summers spent at the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather Beijing. She tells great stories about Haier, Lenovo, Wahaha and other Chinese firms that may or may not be building a new type of market economy. But in her eagerness to identify a uniquely Chinese approach to the buying and selling of things, Wang underestimates some of the deeper structural forces that drive capitalism in both East and West.

The ideal Chinese consumer has dazzled foreign companies for at least two centuries. The prospect of selling every Chinese person a pair of pants, a soft drink or a new car has prompted transnational corporations to invest heavily, time and again, in prying open the Chinese economy. Over the past two decades, the arrival of powerful transnational corporations with sophisticated advertising campaigns should have wiped out all the local Chinese goods and services.

But this didn’t happen. First of all, the Chinese government has tilted the playing field to give the home teams an advantage by establishing laws that restrict the activities of foreign companies. Wang, however, is less interested in these top-down strategies than in the particulars of how local firms and global giants compete for Chinese hearts, minds and pocketbooks by redefining desires and creating new ones.

She cites, for instance, the Chinese search engine Baidu to demonstrate how culture can trump market power. Baidu created viral video ads that were as hilarious as they were untranslatable and revolved around the nuances of the Chinese language that their unnamed competitor (Google) could not capture. Libo beer, meanwhile, pitched itself as a distinctively local brew that could compete against not only foreign brands (Budweiser) but also powerful national brands (Tsingtao). “The beer brand, the campaign says, witnessed all the growing pains of Shanghai throughout the reform era,” Wang relates. “Libo…has been with ‘us’ through thick and thin.”

Even more radical, with the global brands saturating the top markets of Beijing and Shanghai, the local brands decamped to the countryside. For Wang, this is an example of Chinese business translating Maoist strategy into an advertising campaign. Outnumbered in the cities, Mao led his revolutionary army into rural areas to wage “spider warfare,” whereby the countryside gradually surrounded the cities. Similarly, the Chinese soft-drink company Wahaha, creator of Future Cola, didn’t attempt to take on the Coca-Cola and Pepsi behemoths in the cosmopolitan centers. Instead, it went deep into the interior to target peasants and citizens of smaller cities.

The global brands have adapted their marketing strategies accordingly. Global brands are not entirely tone-deaf to local cultures. Despite the claims of many business self-help manuals, Chevy never bombed with its Nova (“No va,” or “Doesn’t go,” in Spanish) in Latin America; Coke never launched a major ad campaign in China with its premier brand translated into Mandarin as “bite the wax tadpole.” These urban myths endure because of the delight we take in seeing corporate Goliaths felled by their own weapons. While ad campaigns with insufficient cultural nuance have bombed in China, global brands have generally been quite sophisticated in their attempts to “go native.”

In China, for instance, Coca-Cola tapped into Chinese nationalism with a commercial it ran on television there during the 2002 World Cup. The ad featured a Chinese boy giving a Coke bottle filled with Chinese soil to the soccer players so that they could have a “homegrown advantage” in their game. This is only one example of Coca-Cola turning its back on its earlier strategy of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. Having removed “global” from its advertising vocabulary, Coke has pledged itself to “think locally and act locally.” In similar fashion, Kentucky Fried Chicken has adapted its menu to include mushroom chicken porridge and Peking-style chicken rolls. McDonald’s not only features corn soup on its Chinese menus; its Beijing franchises also get 95 percent of their ingredients from local sources. The purveyor of the quick meal recognizes that Chinese treat the restaurant as a family outing, not as fast food, and so has used the slogan “Get together at McDonald’s; enjoy the happiness of family life.” Academics have coined a rather awkward neologism for this phenomenon: glocalization.

While Colonel Sanders hawks porridge, Chinese firms like Lenovo have gone global. The computer giant made headlines in 2005 when it purchased IBM’s personal computer division. Tsingtao beer is available in many US stores. Several Chinese companies have tried to break into the US market, only to come up against political opposition. The US Congress blocked the attempt by CNOOC, China’s largest offshore oil producer, to purchase Unocal, and a fight is brewing over Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s bid to purchase 3Com.

Haier, meanwhile, not only sells refrigerators throughout Europe and North America; it has also made a bid to remove the cultural “odor” of its wares. Theorist Koichi Iwabuchi applies the term “odor” to products with features that betray their local, region or national origins. Japanese animators, for instance, remove all telltale Japanese traits from their characters so that they can more easily cross borders. Similarly, Haier created a cartoon featuring two cute brothers who travel the globe on various goodwill missions. The Haier Brothers, with their big, round eyes, do not look Chinese, and their trips to fifty-six countries transform them into global citizens. The cartoon, which absorbed a full 15 percent of the appliance manufacturer’s advertising budget, even succeeds in eliminating the odor of production from the brand, since no appliances appear in the series. Instead, the cartoon simply associated the brand name with fun, adventure and humanitarianism, a potentially useful strategy for selling to an overseas audience that might otherwise associate China with human rights violations, prison labor and questionable relationships with Burma and Sudan. “Can we put a price tag on the tale-telling appeal of a brand?” Wang asks. “It is worth a king’s ransom.”

So forget about global versus local. Forget the dichotomy between the homogenizing pressures of globalization and the particularizing appeals of localization. Wang doesn’t argue that the world is flat. Rather, in the world of advertising, the hierarchies are constantly shifting as deodorized national products compete against global brands that have skillfully acquired a local perfume. The latest version of the Haier Brothers cartoon, short videos featuring two Americans who travel around China in search of the spirit of the Olympics, proves that national brands can reacquire cultural odor when necessary, just as global brands can reassert their universal appeal if the market so demands.

China is different. The state maintains partial ownership of firms like Lenovo, and a cooperative relationship with Haier. The Chinese government continues to play a larger role in shaping economic development than in the increasingly neoliberal nations of the West. To do business in China, as everyone from Coke to McDonald’s has discovered, requires thinking like the Chinese. The Chinese elite usually hire chauffeurs, so if you want to sell luxury cars, you should include a screen between front and back seats. Gift giving is different in China, companies need to acknowledge the impact of the one-child policy and consumers generally favor “safety” over “desire.” There are still vestiges of socialist collectivism.

To attract Chinese consumers, then, advertisers must rely on Chinese content and symbols. But are the mechanisms they use peculiarly Chinese? For instance, Wahaha’s celebrated spider warfare resembles Wal-Mart’s strategy to avoid the major retailers and establish stores in underserved, often rural areas. Although Sam Walton would later borrow certain team-building tactics from South Korean companies, it is hard to imagine him as a teenager bent over the works of Mao and Sun Tzu in an effort to apply their wisdom to American retail. When Coca-Cola cleverly used nationalism in its World Cup ad–in what might be called “the Mean Joe Green commercial with Chinese characteristics”–the appropriation of nationalism was by no means unique to the Chinese context. Just think of all the foreign brands that try to obscure their origins with US advertising campaigns that rely heavily on American flags or references to baseball.

Perhaps the more interesting blind spot is in Wang’s discussion of Chinese advertisers’ relationship to youth culture. It has become commonplace to observe that the Tiananmen Square generation, which took such risks to achieve political freedoms, has become satisfied with consumer freedoms instead. In 1979, the year commercial advertising returned to China, the Chinese government set a disturbing precedent when it replaced the famous Democracy Wall–the first significant post-Cultural Revolution flowering of political diversity–with the equivalent of a billboard. In the 1990s, the marketplace of new political ideas collapsed into the more conventional marketplace of new products. And so far in China, advertisers, rather than new political leaders, have tried to reach the younger generation by appealing to their residual rebelliousness.

Consider the example of Beck’s beer commercials. In one particularly blatant example that Wang cites, a field of sunflowers faces east, an allusion to the Maoist song “The East Is Red” and the tradition of equating Mao with the sun, and sunflowers with the loyal masses. But in this ad, a bottle of Beck’s appears in the west, attracting the attention of one quirky sunflower. “Listen to yourself,” the tag line goes. “Drink Beck’s.” Wang writes, “Branding is more about resonance than inculcation. What Beck’s delivered was nothing more than the younger generation’s desire to go against the grain in an era bound by political taboos. Instead of staking out a new cultural position, the beer simply unearthed what was on the minds of the unruly youth at that particular historical juncture.” Chinese brands have done the same, appealing to “acting cool” and “having fun.” As Wang puts it, “Rebellious postures are chic, but they have little to do with iconoclasm.”

Here, her discussion would have benefited from Thomas Frank’s study of how US advertisers mined the counterculture in the 1970s to sell more products. His Conquest of Cool exhumes what now seem such transparently uncool efforts to market to the new demographic. Columbia Records ran an ad in 1968 that assured record buyers that “the Man can’t bust our music.” Braniff hired Andy Warhol to appear in its ads. Before Apple positioned itself as the revolutionary trying to topple totalitarian IBM, Pepsi was proclaiming itself an insurgent taking on the monolithic Coke.

China may well be different. But advertising is incorrigibly the same. Its goals are to create desires and sell more products. Although they change according to time and place, the strategies obey a similar logic. China has its 170-plus niche markets, its 80,000-plus advertising firms. And Wang points out some of its interesting quirks. For instance, for the peak sixty-five seconds of television time that follow the national news and precede the weather forecast, China Central Television holds an auction and companies pay top yuan for the five-second spot that might catapult them into brand heaven. True, the TV market is shaped by the monopoly hold the state-owned network maintains. But even this model is eroding with the proliferation of cable offerings. China’s market is different, but is a fundamentally new kind of economy emerging there? Wang’s survey of the new Chinese advertising reveals greater convergence than a world of difference.

Several years ago, I interviewed a Costco manager at the opening of the retailer’s third major store in the Tokyo area. Costco’s approach of selling in bulk to consumers with tiny kitchens and a preference for walking to local stores for fresh produce seemed so quixotic that I couldn’t help asking whether the company had encountered resistance. At first, the manager said, the Japanese were taken aback by Flintstone-sized packages of meat and industrial-strength cans of cling peaches. But Costco persisted, and gradually Tokyo consumers began to adapt. “The Japanese had to learn how to shop,” the manager told me.

Costco wasn’t thinking like the Japanese. Despite a couple of distinctively Japanese flourishes–free samples of lychee liqueur, a larger than usual section devoted to rice–it was pursuing its own cookie-cutter approach of supersized portions. For all the money and research poured into local ad campaigns, advertising agencies can’t hide the fact that they are pushers, trying to get people to buy things they hitherto didn’t know they wanted. Costco pushes bulk. McDonald’s in China, as elsewhere in the world, embarked on a campaign to make children into consumers. Motorola wants to turn peasants into cellphone users. Haier wants Chinese peasants to put away their washboards and buy machines–if they want to scrub their yams as an intermediate stage between feudalism and socialism, so be it.

Wang has a more liberating view of consumers. In her analysis, they are not mindless robots buying whatever is dangled before their slavering mouths, any more than readers of romances, in the classic text of the reader-response school of literary criticism by Janice Radway (Reading the Romance), are mindless devourers of trash. Readers and consumers have agency. They are subjects as well as objects. They can be stubborn things, refusing to be pigeonholed into a particular demographic. Wang describes “neo-tribes” that, with their rapid shape-shifting, confound advertisers’ categories, multiply China’s niche markets and further lengthen the “long tail” that has replaced the mass market.

Wang wants not just to break down unnuanced distinctions between local and global or between capitalist and communist. She describes a blurring of production and consumption as consumers participate in the creation of brands. Children watch the Haier cartoons and then talk to their parents about them. YouTubers spread the next generation of Haier Brothers videos more effectively than any top-down campaign. Bloggers and social networkers are drawn into the marketing chain. “Prosumers” create content–songs, videos, dances, artwork–that marketers then use to give their products authenticity.

Wang’s book is a valuable contribution to a new kind of anthropology that studies the reciprocal relationship between culture and advertising. But Brand New China is not just a description of China’s culture and the neo-tribes changing it. A certain utopianism lurks in her book. She envisions a future in which consumers of the world unite and throw off the shackles of intellectual property rights and corporate information control. But this is a world in which politics practically disappears and the United States and China become two halves of the same giant shopping mall. The only significant conflict will pit a billion prosumers hankering after glocalized brands against the Costco cookie-cutters. It is not a pretty picture. Oh, brand new world that has such people in it.

This article is in the February 18, 2008 print edition of The Nation.