Why are most of the advertising models in China Caucasian?
1. The Phenomenon
On my trips back to China, one phenomenon distresses me. In the commercial districts and public transportation vehicles of the cities and towns I went, most of the indoor and outdoor advertising featured Caucasian models. From huge billboards and TV screens on the outside walls of malls, as well as small screens and pinups in crowded subway trains, Caucasian guys and gals stared at me or ignored me, displaying a wide range of merchandize, from English lessons (reasonable) to apartments, cars, furniture, suits, underwear, shavers and deodorants. I was dismayed not by the models’ ethnicity per se, but their irrelevance to the Chinese men, and women and children filling the streets under their gaze, who invariably looked as Chinese as steamed buns (比馒头还中国化). The models’ disconnection from the context and environment makes them lifeless, soulless, out of place and absurd. They are cardboards hanging from the wall. My first thought was “are Chinese advertisers living in a bubble and alienated from the consumers they are talking to?” This Caucasian colonization of modeling and advertising is not limited to hippie quarters of BJ and SH. In a shabby department store of a rundown rural town pushing discount stuff, the likeliness of an unidentified, average looking, low-spirit Caucasian chap stared at me in the eye in a very bizarre way from the wall, sporting a suit of cheap material and dubious design.
One day I walked past a Nike store and saw their announcement on the window that the Olympic competition uniform (the scanty ones you wear in the action) they had designed for the Chinese team was on display. I wondered why Li Ning (the only brand I wear at the gym) did not get this honor. I went in to check it out. The uniform consisted of two pieces, a pair of shorts and a tank top in bold China red, with the English word “China” printed in China gold on the chest. It was on prominent display, on a series of life-size sculptures of a male athlete on the tracks, running to the door, in the process of jumping over a hurdle. The material of the sculpture was shiny and metallic, in the color of maple syrup. Looking at the sculpture I was dismayed; it was Caucasian again (or I thought). Now I had enough, and immediately summoned a young shop attendant and demanded to know why they put the Chinese uniform on a foreign guy. Hurdling is Liu Xiang’s cup of tea and why didn’t he get the job? The shop attendant was shocked out of his wits by my righteous indignation. He stuttered: “Thi thi thi this is Liu Xiang.” I looked more closely, exclaiming “really? Is this Ah Xiang? Is this Xiang Zi? 是吗？这是阿翔吗？这翔子吗？” It was Liu Xiang alright. But I swear to Chairman Mao they gave him striking European features.
2. The Interpretations
I have tried hard to wrap my mind around this phenomenon and decipher its implications. Advertising, especially advertising for fashion and lifestyle products, is material for ordinary people’s fantasy about who they are and what kind of people they wanna be. How are the teenagers and children in the process of constructing a storyline about their individual and cultural identities influenced by the fact that guys and gals with foreign looks occupy the billboards and those in their semblance get kicked out?
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