Published on August 4, 2009
Advertising of the Beauty Industry in ChinaHow Foreign Beauty Advertising Affects Chinese Culture and SocietyInternational Business ManagemeNTDoctor BhattacharyaDecember 15, 2008Authored by: Erica Swallow
Advertising of the Beauty Industry in China
How Foreign Beauty Advertising Affects Chinese Culture and Society
Since China’s opening in 1978, it has lured investment from foreign companies that hope to find bountiful opportunities by appealing to China’s 1.3 billion consumers. Companies of all types have entered, yet few have found success. One industry that has highly benefited from China’s opening up policy is the beauty industry. With increasing disposable income among female Chinese consumers and a greater demand for beauty products, the beauty industry in China has welcomed many foreign firms with open arms.
The mass entrance of foreign beauty companies has a huge significance as pertaining to Chinese culture and society. With foreign beauty companies came foreign beauty advertising, portraying Western models, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, flaunting Western goods and values, with little attention paid to Chinese traditions and ideas on ‘beauty’. Foreign beauty advertising has drastically changed the concept of beauty from a preference towards traditional Chinese beauty to a preference of ‘foreign beauty’. Foreign advertising sends the message that natural Chinese features are inferior to Western ideas of beauty. Some believe that mass foreign advertising has created a psychological inferiority complex in the younger female Chinese population. Rather than accepting themselves as Chinese and embracing their natural beauty, young women are seeking medical treatments and beauty enhancements to make themselves appear more foreign, requiring them to be slim, tall, white skinned, have rounder eyes, a high, narrow nose and wider lips. This behavior is unhealthy and may have lasting effects on Chinese culture and society.
Looking back on history, we see that there is a recurring theme of beauty if China – a porcelain, oval face; thin, long eyebrows; long eyes with slightly up-curved corners; and a small, rosy mouth. In fact, beautiful Chinese women were often compared to peach blossoms. Beauty in ancient China could also be defined by a woman’s obedience to commonly held virtues. “Women’s appearance, along with their impeccable morality, proper speech, and diligent housework, were compulsory criteria of good women. In addition, a woman should be obedient to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage and to her son after her husband’s death” (Chinese Perspectives). This criterion was highly influenced by Confucius-thought.
Above, From Left: The traditional Chinese beauty; Zhou Xuan, the Marilyn Monroe of 1930 Shanghai, is an example of traditional beauty in then mid-twentieth century; This vintage ad features a woman with porcelain skin holding the Ku Lin brand facial Cream and reads “Gift of Quality and Beauty”.
As evident in the last image above, up until China’s opening, it was quite typical that the basic ad for any beauty or fashion product would feature a woman of traditional beauty holding the product. While it may seem repetitious, this style was regarded as art. This was a result of government regulations on advertising, deeming it a Capitalistic evil.
With the entry of foreign beauty companies, new forms of advertisement became more prevalent. By the time of China’s opening, foreign beauty companies were far more developed in the advertising industry than Chinese companies. In fact, a year after China’s opening, advertising was officially reinstated and the emergence and foundation stage of the advertising industry in China began (Hu). During this foundation stage, from 1979-89, Chinese advertising scholars began to systematically introduce Western advertising concepts to promote " modern advertising”, an antithesis of " traditional advertising." Table I below explains the differences between modern and traditional advertising as argued by Chinese advertising scholars (Gao).
Traditional AdvertisingModern AdvertisingCentered around production and was employed to disseminate product information and promote salesCentered around the consumer and tailored production and marketing to consumer psychologyBased on small-scale production, it functioned only as a subsidiary business tool and tended to be blind and impulsiveBased on large-scale socialized production in a commodity economy, it rose to the level of scientific decisions and became an integral part of enterprise management systemConsidered an art of paintingConsidered a comprehensive scienceOnly offered services such as media booking and advertising production and operated on the principle of " advertise for whomever pays" Emphasized planning and creativity and provided full services to the client
Source: Gao, Zhihong (See bibliography)
This shift in advertising style after China’s opening correlates to a shift in societal thought. To a large degree, advertising is a reflection of society and has an influence on future societal behavior. While pulling in Western advertising styles, Chinese advertisers also pulled in Western messages and ideas on life and consumerism.
Above: DaBao, a household name in China, still uses traditional beautyLooking closer at the beauty industry in China, it is evident that some large Chinese beauty companies, such as DaBao, still use the traditional image of Chinese beauty in ads. Foreign entrance has had little influence on their beauty philosophy. However, this may change in the near future, as large international corporations have begun buying up Chinese beauty companies left and right. For example, Johnson & Johnson acquired DaBao a few months ago, after entering a bidding war with Avon and Unilever (Yu). The race to buy up Chinese beauty brands that understand Chinese consumers is on. Companies like DaBao will continue to be gobbled up by multinational brands, hoping to sink into the psyches of existing Chinese consumers.
International and domestic companies alike have reason to quarrel. According to a new Kline & Company market study, China is now the third-largest market for cosmetics and toiletries, next to Japan and the United States. Sales are projected to rise by more than 10% a year to 2010, expanding the market to $17 billion. With such attractive grown rates, companies have plenty of reasons to heavily compete. Edward Wang, manager of China Beauty at The NPD Group, confirms that:
“The beauty industry in China is an emerging market and I expect to see continued growth in the coming year, with skincare products at the forefront. We are seeing more advertisements in China both in magazines and on television for premium-priced anti-aging products. These ads play an important role in educating women about skincare usage in China (Hilsenrath).”
But exactly how much influence do these foreign beauty companies and their advertising have on Chinese consumers? In a 2005 article in Fortune Magazine entitled “Battling for the Face of China”, author Sheridan Prasso argued that the juxtaposition in China’s beauty industry between modernity and tradition:
“is a raging battle among global beauty giants vying to win the face of Chinese women. There's French giant L'Oréal pitted against Japan's Shiseido, both of which are being challenged by U.S. leader Estée Lauder and a handful of Chinese companies that draw upon the desire for traditional skin beautifiers.”
In essence, the beauty battle in China today is a battle of balance between the old and the new. But it seems that the new is winning and replacing the traditions. Although beauty products had been popular in China’s history, wearing them became taboo during Mao’s reign, as it undermined the Communist philosophy of standardization among people. Beauty products were reintroduced during Deng Xiaoping’s time in office. But even now, wearing makeup to appear younger can actually cause a Chinese woman to ‘lose face’ in some parts of China, as everyone is expected to obey their position in society. As the Chinese respect the wisdom of old age, wrinkles included, wearing beauty products to cover this ‘wisdom’ could be looked down on (Alon).
However, times are changing, especially in urban China. After the country opened to foreign influence, women began expressing themselves more outwardly, using cosmetics. To take advantage of this, one of the first beauty manufacturers to enter China was Procter & Gamble in 1988 with their line Oil of Ulan, known today as Olay. Today, even Olay’s skin whiteners outsell Chinese brands. This is astounding, because whiteners are based on the traditional preference for fairness. How could a foreigner outsell the locals on such a traditional concept? Advertising.
China’s advertising industry is booming. According to CR-Nielsen, Nielsen's China joint venture on research of China's Internet market, online advertising spending is expected to increase 30-40% in 2009. Traditional media is also on the rise in China, but at a slower rate. At the CCTV prime time advertising auction for 2009, sales hit a record high of $1.36 billion, a 15% increase from last year (Online). Let’s take a look at some of ads from 2008.
Above, From Top Left: Various foreign brands market whitening creams in Asian countries. These ads feature pale Caucasian models: Dior Snow; Estee Lauder CyberWhite EX; Lancome Blanc Expert; Pond’s White Beauty.
All of the previous ads for whitening creams were found in popular Chinese magazines. Stressing the importance of fairness, they use phrases like “snow”, “cyber white”, “blanc”, and “white beauty”. Products that promise to help consumers improve themselves are to be expected. However, the underlying message of ‘change’ in order to be beautiful is a troubling concept. This message sent out by the beauty industry can be found everywhere, in every country and almost every city. However, the effect that it is having on Chinese and other Asian consumers is much more horrendous than in the U.S. or other developed areas. As Indian graphic designer Nikki Dugal expressed: “we still have this colonial hang-up that white is better, white is wealth, white is someone rich enough to never toil in the sun (Wax)."
While whitening rooted in colonialism is unfortunate, this is not where the beauty alterations end. For many Chinese, beauty is seen as an investment in the future, as it often allows women to get better jobs or find wealthy husbands. Young girls in their early 20’s are increasingly interested in getting cosmetic surgeries to obtain ‘foreign’ beauty. Some of the most popular surgeries include creasing one’s eyelids, narrowing of the nose, breast implants, liposuction, and even leg-lengthening (Jesús).
In China, the popularity of change for beauty resulted in the first annual Miss Artificial Beauty pageant in 2003. The artificial beauty pageant only allows entrants that have had extensive cosmetic surgery. The philosophy is that all ‘ugly’ women can become beautiful with the wonders of ‘man-made beauty’. Cosmetic surgeons, proud of their works of art, are proud sponsors and judges of the pageant. The existence of this pageant is evidence that China has come a long way in the past few decades. In 1993, Beijing University students refused ever to enter a beauty contest; they were “meaningless western culture” and contestants lacked “self-respect and spiritual pursuits” (Jesús).
In light of the circumstances, a recent campaign by Olay seems to be trying to combat the popular message of change that other advertisers are communicating.
Above, from left: Chinese Olay ads, which read: “From making yourself become more beautiful to making your wisdom become more beautiful”; “From beauty that comes from touching up to beauty that comes from the skin”; “From believing in destiny to believing in yourself”.
The ads above focus on self-improvement based on wisdom, one’s natural skin, and confidence. However, if we look closer, we’ll see that all of the ads are promoting Western values. In the first ad, the Chinese woman is whitening her skin while reading about French, one of the well-known Romance languages. The cultural assumption is that learning French, a Western language, will make you wiser. In the second ad, a Chinese woman in heavy makeup is overshadowed by a Caucasian model that seems to be bare of cosmetics. The ad implies that the Chinese woman should take cues from the Westerner. The last ad discusses believing in yourself rather than destiny. Her palm is marked with her life, heart, and sun lines, as dictated by chiromancy, or palm-reading. Palm-reading roots back to India and Roma, but came to China around 3,000B.C. In any case, many Chinese believe that destiny and luck play large roles in a person’s success. Thus, this ad has inadvertently taken a hit at Chinese cultural norms in preference for the selfish, Western ideals that come with self-esteem. Furthermore, the focus on the self in this ad undermines the group-orientated mindset that is strongly held in China.
It is clear that the beauty industry has benefited from China’s opening up policy. While many smaller corporations could not weather the storm, many large multinational companies have found success. These companies, including Olay, Lancome, Estee Lauder, and Pond’s, have survived based on one of their shared core competencies – a large advertising budget and creative advertisers who use the money efficiently. It is evident that these companies have a large influence in the market, as they are among the top-selling brands in China. The issue, however, lies in their inability to communicate messages that agree with the once widely-held ideas of natural Chinese beauty. This lack of cultural integrity on part of multinational advertisers has had a detrimental impact on young Chinese girls. Cosmetic surgeries, even to the extent of leg-lengthening, have become commonplace, accepted, and encouraged.
In general, international marketers must take all aspects of a brand into considerations when choosing to market abroad, including the price, distribution, product features, and promotions as specific to the country in which they want to enter. In a lot of cases, beauty manufacturers are able to make good choices on pricing and distribution models. Product features can be a little more difficult to figure out, as consumers have varying needs across countries. However, promotion is arguably the most difficult aspect of the brand to master while abroad. Marketers must understand a country’s language, symbols, and cultural assumptions.
In this case, it is apparent that upon first entering China, foreign beauty advertisers, with a lack of knowledge on the cultural ideas being Chinese beauty, continued to persevere with advertising that practically mimicked the Western versions of ads for similar products. Even today, in the age of information overload and with a wide-spread understanding of the need to be culturally-sensitive, advertisers within the beauty industry continue to advertise using Western views and values.
A lot of Asian societies have already been Westernized to a large extent as a result of colonization. Now, with the opening of China, foreign companies have revived hopes of profiting at the expense of the Chinese consumers. With little regard to cultural norms, advertisers push products that Chinese women have traditionally had little use for. The underlying message is that ‘foreign’ beauty trumps Chinese beauty. This rejection of natural beauty in preference for ‘foreign’ beauty has resulted in shifts in cultural and societal values among the younger Chinese generations, as well as the creation of a psychological inferiority complex in the younger female population. Rather than accepting themselves as Chinese and embracing their natural beauty, young women seek to change themselves to conform to international beauty standards. Refutation of one’s natural self is an unhealthy behavior. As this type of behavior is occurring on a mass scale in China, it could have a negative effect on Chinese society and culture, as well as a lasting impression on future generations.
If anything is to be done to improve the situation, foreign beauty advertisers should be more critical of the messages they are communicating to young women in China, paying closer attention to the cultural and societal rifts that could be caused.Bibliography
Alon, Ilon. Chinese Economic Transition and International Marketing Strategy. Greenwood Publishing Group; Westport, Connecticut: 2003. Pages 164-67.
Chinese Perspectives on Attraction and Beauty. October 21, 2007. Journal of Intercultural Learning. December 9, 2008.http://www.interculturallearning.net/2007/10/21/chinese-perspetives-on-attraction-and-beauty/
Gao, Zhihong. What’s in a Name? On China’s Search for Socialist Advertising. 2003. Advertising Education Foundation. December 9, 2008. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/asr/v004/4.3gao.html
Hilsenrath, Cristina. The NPD Group Reports Premium Skincare Products See Growth in China. June 26, 2008. NPD Group Press Release. Smart Brief. http://www.smartbrief.com/news/aaaa/industryBW-detail.jsp?id=8D4C98DA-733C-41D8-87DA-22A3EC754B8B
Hu, Xiaoyun. Theoretical Studies of Advertising in Modern China: the History and the Actuality. 2006. Institute of Communication, Zhejiang University. December 9, 2008. http://www.chinamediaresearch.net/vol2no2/5_Hu_xiao_yun_Newer_2.pdf
Jesús, Attilo. China’s New Faces. June 2005. Le Monde Diplomatique. December 10, 2008. http://mondediplo.com/2005/06/17beauty
Online Advertising Set to Rebuff Global Crisis. November 26, 2008. China.cn. http://en.china.cn/content/d444270,3c24e4,2848_13987.html
Plasso, Sheridan. Battling for the Face of China. December 12, 2005. Fortune Magazine. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/12/12/8363110/index.htm
Wax, Emily. In India, Fairness is a Growing Industry. May 4, 2008. Washington Post. December 11, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/03/AR2008050302146.html?referrer=emailarticle
Yu, TianYu. Johnson & Johnson Buys Out DaBao. August 1, 2008. China Daily. December 9, 2009. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2008-08/01/content_6897364.htm
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