Thursday, February 28, 2008

New slogans for the new times

The 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China took place in Beijing late last year, with over 2000 delegates attending from all over the country. In his two and a half hour address to the delegates, President Hu Jintao described several important achievements as well as several significant challenges facing China today. The speech clearly exhibits the pride that China feels in its achievements as well the candid concern for the current issues and problems. However, it was interesting to see that while China has made immense strides in many spheres, the tradition of the rhetoric and the use of slogans is firmly in place. Of course, the old slogans have been replaced by the new. The current rage propounded by President Hu Jintao is “harmonious society”. Some time ago when the government abolished the agricultural tax, the move was accompanied by a slogan of “new countryside”. Also talked about for quite some time is China’s ambition to achieve a “moderately prosperous society” (xiao kang). President Hu added a few more in this congress – scientific outlook on development (implying balanced and sustainable development) and socialism with Chinese characteristics (implying that China is different and outsiders should stop telling it what it should do!).

Slogans or biayo yu as they are called in Chinese, have been integral to life in China since the communists took over in 1949. In fact during the earlier days of communism, the country was practically wired up through public address systems which incessant broadcast of slogans, exhortations, party doctrine and even threats. Prominent slogans from that time are – down with imperialist running dogs, suppress counter revolutionaries, serve the people. From time to time new slogans made their way and the one which really changed the country and paved the way for rapid economic strides was the one proclaimed by Deng Xiao Ping when he said “to get rich is glorious” (or words to that effect).

With the opening up of China to the rest of the world in 1978, the scale and shrillness of slogans substantially decreased. Over a period of time political slogans have been replaced by commercial advertising and messages of indoctrination gave way to messages of inducement of unspeakable joys of consumption or unthinkable relief on usage of various products. Coming from the tradition of sloganeering, it was not surprising that the initial advertising often resembled the tone and form of traditional slogans. Even now a large proportion of advertising seen on the Chinese television comprises models holding the brand to the camera and ecstatically recounting its virtues.

It was thought that the Chinese consumer is a simple soul and can not understand the subtlety of soft advertising which attempts to endear the brand through use of emotions or clever creative devices. Direct communication of the benefits in unambiguous terms was considered the safe route of communication. As a result while advertising in many other markets is as much entertainment as brand communication and attempts to engage the consumer through subtle creative devices, in China it is often a direct onslaught with the core benefit – often repeated several times within the same advertisement.

However, research done in China shows that this direct route does not have to be the one that an advertiser needs to embrace to succeed. Emotional advertising works and so does humour, endorsement or any of the other genres of advertising practiced elsewhere. The success of advertising in China, as elsewhere, depends on the ability of the advertisement to address the key consumer concerns, to overcome the deterrents for use and offer persuasive motivations for adoption of the brand. It also depends upon the extent to which the advertising portrays a social imagery that the target group can identify with and its ability to reflect consumer culture and aspirations.

It is interesting that it is not only the commercial world which is changing its attitude and strategy of communication. The Chinese government’s adoption of the one-child policy in late 1970’s was accompanied by strident and heavy handed communication. The slogans at that time included – “one less child is one less tomb”, “have less children and more piggies” or even "houses toppled, cows confiscated, if abortion demand rejected". In an effort to reflect the modern times, the National Population and Family Planning Commission in early August decided to begin replacing offensive slogans with new, more gentle communication. The new messages revolve around positive motivations of "healthy childbearing," "reproductive health," "rearing better children," and "care for girls," and focus on expressions like "life," "health," and "happiness". The new kinder messages like "Mother Earth is too tired to sustain more children" and "Both boys and girls are in parents' hearts" reflect the changing mood of the nation and a population which is demanding and getting more and more respect, consideration and a distinct voice.

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