Luxury Advertising Banned in China? Then Redefine Luxury as High Art.

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

How do you advertise luxury, aspirational products in China, which is moving to ban exactly that kind of advertising? By exploiting Marxism. Look closely:

You watch this droning, anodyne, short-film-length commercial, and your reaction, like many Westerners and Americans, is that the ad stinks. It’s too long, and the message isn’t clear. We’re used to ads that rely on the product as a object that enables a fantasy in which the consumer gets or achieves something they lack. This ad doesn’t appear to do it nearly as well as any of the myriad of jewelry and fashion ads we’ve seen do.

But recall the Chinese government’s position on advertising. Starting with outdoor advertising, China is moving to ban luxury and aspirational advertising that promotes what they call a “foreign” lifestyle that highlights the gap between rich and poor, and that establishes wealth as an objective in and of itself.

So that political backdrop casts ad in an entirely different light. Yes, by western standards the ad sucks, but that’s because these are kinds of watch ads we are used to seeing:

Buy one watch get the girl, buy another one and keep her. Now this is advertising!

But these are precisely the kinds of ads that China doesn’t want. So how do you sell a product like this into a culture that is actively trying to ban the conventional way of selling them?

You make a long-form commercial superficially espousing “traditional values” of familiy, community, honor, and respect. But you also include some over Marxism. If consumerism alienates the consumer from the laborer who created the product, this ad tries to subvert commodity fetishism and shows the consumer exactly where the product comes from, and who the workers are who made it. Beginning at around the 5:30 mark, we are shown the a tour of the Montblanc factory where smiling workers (“artists”) construct each watch by hand.

Secondly, now that you’ve given the dignity of labor its time in the spotlight, you, the seller of grossly overprices luxury status symbols, redefine “luxury watch” as “art”. In fact, the Montblanc worker states baldly “the watch is really a piece of art” and “a masterpiece”. But in redefining it as art, it re-establishes the fetish that the tour through the factory undermined! We know from earlier in the ad that the woman, the object of his love and the means by which he can “satisfy” his parents, is interested in art, and it is her admiration of a painting of the Montblanc building that leads them to Switzerland in the first place. So giving her the watch is really giving her a gift of a work of art, because she will appreciate it. All the other accoutrements of wealth shown in this ad–the large home, the Mercedes convertible, the private jet–are not just playthings of the rich as they are in Western advertisements, they serve the narrative purpose as the tools he uses to win her back. These non-advertised luxuries take on a utilitarian function, and the one advertised luxury, the watch, is explicitly elevated outside the consumer space to the level of artwork.

But feminists out there will see right away that the message of this Montblanc commercial is still exactly the same as the the Patek Phillipe ads above. The girl is still a prize, an object that can be acquired. The only real difference between them is narrative efficiency.

And this is how it must be in advertising. That is the power of the commodity-as-fetish. This watch has a magic power. If you buy this watch, you will get something you really want but can’t get otherwise, and it’s got nothing to do with telling time.

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16 Responses to Luxury Advertising Banned in China? Then Redefine Luxury as High Art.

  1. Supastaru says:

    Are there any chinese natives/immigrants willing to share their take on this?

  2. Fifi says:

    Interesting take on it Pastabagel but I do question just how “Chinese” some things you’re attributing to it actually are. In high end advertising that’s aimed more at high end consumers than all of us general rabble, it’s not that unusual to make mini-movies about the product and how it’s made. There’s a reason for this, particularly when it comes to things like men’s watches – which have always been a key, if not the most important, sartorial signifier of power and wealth for men (though obviously this ad was trying to sell a pair of watches and create the idea that it’s desirable to use them instead of wedding rings). One of the reasons some upscale luxury good are presented as “art” is that they then become a signifier of not just wealth but ultimately of superior class/taste (class is about refinement of taste, not just wealth, which is why manners and accent are such key signifiers of class and why the newly wealthy and bourgeoisie who want to actually jump classes will send their kids to specific schools to learn how to be posh). In many many ways, the emphasis on “art” in this ad actually makes this ad about class in a somewhat different way than you’re proposing – not because we see the workers, who are more “artisans” than any sort of “worker” than most Chinese would recognize – but because it’s about the elitism of taste (with a very big emphasis on Western aesthetic values and traditions, there’s hardly any traditional Chinese culture in this ad – from how the father talks with the son to shopping in France to the wedding). So, this combined with the fact that high end brands often do mini-movies fetishizing craftsmanship and equating taste with class (and their product as a signifier of both taste and class), makes me question some of the basis for your reading of the ad. I’d be very curious to get some insight from someone who actually lives in China – particularly someone the ad was actually aimed at (and to know where it was shown…TV? Before a movie? Online? On a plane?….context is everything ;-)

    • Pastabagel says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’m giving some more thought to this.

      • Fifi says:

        My pleasure, it’s always risky trying to decipher another culture’s signifiers (meaning being context specific and all) – particularly when we’re dealing with something like advertising. Even very affluent advertisers get it wrong sometimes, something that can lead to great hilarity as they fall into a cultural gap. Unfortunately for the lols, this happens much less often these days than it used to.

  3. claudius says:

    From a chat with a friend of mine who is working in China.


    5:33 AM Me:
    5:35 AM Friend in China: I’m looking at a giant billboard they just put up last night
    “luxury spa”
    literally it’s 200 ft wide and directly across the street
    5:37 AM Friend in China: this is one of those ‘regulations’ that will only be enforced when the officials in charge want it to be enforced

    The real issue here isn’t that they “banned” luxury ads…it’s an example of how government expands its power by creating as many laws as possible. It gives the chinese government the ability to control business as it pleases.

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  8. xylokopos says:

    All ads in China have words such as luxury, world status, global, international etc. The fact that ads on the street or on TV feature some english, does not mean they are addressed to foreigners living in China. They are addressed to Chinese with disposable income ( more than 100mil of them, last time I counted) for whom “global excellence/international luxury/similar crap= obviously expensive shit that broadcast I am an important guy. There is NO shame to vulgar displays of money in China because ‘ to be rich, is glorious’, according to the late Deng Xiao Ping.

    Now, after the olympics the chinese government is trying to ride the whole nationalist exuberance sentiment AND address the growing frustration over skyrocketing real estate prices in the cities, by such actions that are utterly incomprehensible to the non chinese. If the law passes, it will be kinda like the smoking in public laws, that is, completely and utterly ignored.

    Also some ad execs are foreigners or chinese that were educated or had some working experience outside of china and have imported the notion of the “sophisticated consummer” from the west and that is why the chinese have learned in the last 10 years to drink wine and play golf and ski and generally spending some money in other activities than mixing Chivas Regal and green tea in karaoke halls, buying audi A6s and renting expensive appartments for their mistresses.

    I lived in China for 7 years.

  9. xylokopos says:

    PS. a massive LOL regarding marxist/feminist/whatever readings of chinese advertising.

  10. cliche says:

    I liked the Chinese ad more than the western ad.
    I wouldn’t buy either, but the Chinese ad had me almost convinced that the watch is a masterpiece.

    • xylokopos says:

      Then wait until you watch a 20 min long ad about a corset-cum-push-up bra; or a 30-min long one about a skin lightening cream, you will really get a kick out of it. Most chinese ads lack the soap opera like narrative of the one pastabagel uploaded, but they are exhausting in their repetition and appeal to authority to underline the absolute and immitable perfection of whatever is been advertised.

  11. lilsheep23 says:

    You can find those adds in China; just not on billboards in Beijing. The terms luxury, VIP, Rich, and Gold are overused in China and the purpose of this ban in Beijing and Chongching, and only in these cities at this point, is in the hopes of preventing resentment among those who do not believe that they can obtain this kind of lifestyle. Stability is a serious issue for the government even though they are still nominally communist this ban on advertising is not a signal of reaching back to an ideological past but a quasi-pragmatic answer to a real threat to the Party’s authority.

    The add may appear to be boring to a sophisticated consumer from the West who was raised in the brands but China is an emerging market that also suffers from a lack of brand recognition let alone brand loyalty. Most Chinese will not be aware of the ban on using luxury terms or promoting luxury brands as it will not be prominently reported in their newspapers. All you need to do is visit Xidawang in Beijing to bask in the glory of these foreign luxury brands, especially Burberry’s flagship that has a blindingly bright multi-story flat screen t.

    No, this ad is about selling a lifestyle and attributing that lifestyle to a certain class. Love is a luxury in China; people often do not get married for this reason. Instead beauty, wealth, education, title and status are far more important factors in choosing a mate. This has led to some rather unfortunate problems that not only exacerbate the gender ratio problems but diminish the values of the society as a whole.

    But that is another post. Montblanc knows exactly what it’s doing. It is creating a brand image based upon traditional Chinese values and modern concepts of love tied into the origin myth of their own brand. These are themes touted long before Beijing crackdown on outside ads and this commercial would be little affected.

    Montblanc is apparently going all out to encourage its new consumer base, which is located in Mainland China; that is what this ad signifies. In fact Montblanc’s largest store is not located in Europe, it’s located in a high-end mall in Shanghai that is flanked by two other high-end malls and takes up three floors.

    Just as an aside, the Patek Phillipe ads you’ve presented are of white women not mainland Chinese women; they are not equivalent. The message in the Montblanc ad is quite different actually and is geared towards a immature fairytale romance aspiration of local women then of the exploitation of women as an object. You are right the other symbols of luxury do serve a purpose; they are the prerequisites to being able to have everlasting love.

  12. Fifi says:

    lilsheep23 – “In fact Montblanc’s largest store is not located in Europe, it’s located in a high-end mall in Shanghai that is flanked by two other high-end malls and takes up three floors.”

    A very good point, I suspect quite a lot of people don’t realize that rich Europeans and Americans are no longer the leading consumers of high end luxury goods and that the companies that create them have been targeting wealthy Asian and Middle Eastern consumers for years now. Not only are there often bigger, glitzier flagship stores in Asia and Dubai than in Paris and New York, but advertising in Asia is quite often actually more like what us Westerners see in scifi movies and believe is “futuristic” (BladeRunner was probably the first movie to present Asian urban present day to Western audiences as if it is sometime in the future).

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