One evening late last year, Yong Yue-peng, a 35-year-old pharmaceutical salesman in Shanghai, flicked on his laptop and went to the site Youku.com, China's version of YouTube. There, he clicked on a made-for-the-Web film that had generated some buzz in Internet chat rooms and the Chinese press. The film — called Old Boys — was about two middle-aged men, friends who had been aspiring musicians when they were young and now had rather humdrum careers. They decide to enter an American Idol — like contest, performing a tribute to one of their musical heroes from the 1980s: Michael Jackson. Yong was transfixed. "Every detail in the film was accurate — the music, the dress, the way things looked in those days," he says. "By the end of it, I was very emotional, almost in tears." He wasn't alone. According to Youku, some 35 million people watched the 43-minute film on its website.
Old Boys wasn't just a one-off creation by a couple of unknown filmmakers that miraculously became popular. It was one of 10 short Web films to appear on Youku, sponsored by one very big Western company that delighted in seeing the films go viral online: Chevrolet, General Motors' iconic American car brand.
The film's extraordinary success is telling evidence of a new commercial paradox: China in 2011 has a mere three decades of experience with modern capitalism; its breakneck economic growth — and the skyscrapers, bullet-train tracks and factories it has produced — has rapidly transformed its urban landscape. In this frenetic era, advertisers are discovering that China's rising consumers don't always fit the traditional new-money mold. While flashy cars and luxury brands certainly play a part in the lives of China's nouveaux riches, conjuring up a simpler time, a past that wasn't actually that long ago, can win the attention of a lot of young aspiring Chinese consumers. In 21st century China, nostalgia is in.
The allure of the not-so-distant past is particularly powerful for China's young middle class, around 200 million people, most of them city dwellers — a generation that came of age as the country's historic transition to a market economy was just taking hold. In contrast to their parents, they have known little hardship (by Chinese standards, anyway), and their future not only seems bright; it is theirs to make. They are, says Edward Bell, group-planning director for Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai, "the pioneers of China's transition. They are helping create the growth that defines today's China, and they are benefiting from it. They are where the money is."
Figuring out what makes them tick — what pushes their buttons in an advertising sense — is a top priority for any company hankering for a piece of China's huge, increasingly affluent consumer class.
Not surprisingly, China's advertising market is surging. The market has grown by more than 20% a year for the past five years, to $54 billion last year, according to ResearchInChina, a Beijing-based market-research firm. As in the U.S., the Internet is China's fastest-growing ad market. Online ad spending grew by more than 80% last year and accounts for roughly 10% of China's overall ad spending, more than twice its share in 2009. Not only are global ad agencies like New York City's Omnicom and Dublin's WPP expanding rapidly in China. Smaller homegrown agencies like Shanghai-based Rayken are also entering the game, picking off major global accounts from their Western counterparts.
The Fine Line
On Madison Avenue, nostalgia — taking consumers to a place they "ache to go again," as Mad Men's Don Draper would say — has long been standard fare for Western advertisers. In China, figuring out how to harness the persuasive power of nostalgia is a far more recent phenomenon — and a much trickier one to navigate. For the first 30 years of Communist Party rule, China was an impoverished country where market economics had little or no place. From 1966 to '76, much of the country was consumed by the chaotic Cultural Revolution, when millions of "bourgeois" Chinese were persecuted and sent off to rural provinces to work as farmers.
在美国广告业，复古风会让消费者身入其境，“再次回味过去”，正如广告狂人中的主角Don Draper 说的那样，复古风是西方广告业一直以来标准的经营模式。在中国，弄清楚如何驾驭复古风，让复古风在目前的气候下更加有煽动力，这需要更多的揣摩研究。在建国后的三十年期间，中国只是一个贫瘠的国家，几乎没有市场经济。在1966年到1976的文化大革命期间，数百万的“走资派”要不被关了起来，要不被送到边远农村当知青，全国市场因为文革变得混乱不堪。
For some, evoking those memories can be painful and political. Consider, for instance, the western city of Chongqing, where the powerful party leader Bo Xilai is publicly trumpeting a patriotic "Red campaign," gathering thousands of people a few times a week in city parks to sing Mao-era songs. The campaign has struck a chord with some older residents, but it has also turned off many others. Even some of Bo's colleagues in the Communist Party are said to be uneasy with evoking that turbulent era.
Foreign and local companies with nostalgia-infused campaigns have to walk a fine line. But deftly used — striking personal rather than political themes — nostalgia can offer as powerful a message in Chinese ad campaigns as it has in the West.
Yong, the pharmaceutical salesman, is the target audience. He and his wife Hui-qing live in a small apartment in a middle-class neighborhood. She is expecting their first child, and so they are looking for a bigger place. They would like to buy a flat — at the moment they rent — but a housing bubble in Shanghai is making that difficult. "I don't think there's much of a chance we'll find a place we can afford," says Yong. His job pays reasonably well but is "intensely competitive. Sales don't come easily. I often work 12 hours a day or more." Yong and his wife may seem like Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class in the new China, but the idea that they have the world on a string and are happily living out the Great Chinese Dream "is kind of funny," Yong says.
Ads that evoke a simpler time, either with humor or pathos, can resonate with consumers like Yong and his wife by providing a fleeting and much needed "psychological safety net," as Ogilvy's Bell puts it. GM's Youku campaign is just one example. Last year, a pop song made reference to two cartoon characters that were featured on the cover of junior high school textbooks in China in the 1990s. Giordano, a Hong Kong — based clothing company, plastered the images of the two characters on T-shirts and distributed them in all its major markets in China. The shirts sold out within days. Taobao, the eBay of China, soon thereafter introduced an online store called Memories for the Post-'80s Generation, which has generated more than $10 million in sales in the past nine months.
The nostalgia play also helped save one of the most famous brands in "post-liberation" China, the Forever bicycle company. The Shanghai-based firm is, in its own way, almost as iconic a brand in China as Chevy is in the U.S. In the 1950s, there were four consumer products — the four so-called bigs — that represented the ultimate status symbols in the then poor country: the wristwatch, the radio, the sewing machine and the Forever bicycle. In today's China — the world's largest market for cars — bicycles are a much tougher sell. "To many people nowadays," says Chen Shen, the young CEO of Forever, "bicycles evoke poverty. Who would want a bike," he says, "when everyone else has a car?" That widespread sentiment, followed by a downturn in China's economy after the global financial crisis, brought Forever to the brink of bankruptcy by 2010.
A digital-ad campaign evoking what Chen calls "a calmer time" — alongside the launch of a new line of simple, classically designed bikes — helped get the company back on track. That may seem counterintuitive for a bicycle maker trying to shed the link between its product and poverty, but the campaign worked. One of the ads depicts a father teaching a son how to ride. The setting is urban, circa the late 1970s; there are no skyscrapers visible; father and son ride around an old neighborhood, down narrow alleyways between low-slung houses. Neighborhoods like that barely exist anymore in urban China; they have slowly but surely been razed over the course of several decades of hypergrowth. Sales of the bike line featured in Forever's nostalgic Web campaign surged by 30% in the year after the campaign's launch, says Chen, which helped give the company some "critical financial breathing room" as it restructured.
The idea of wooing China's young, emerging middle class with nostalgia hasn't come from market research or focus groups, marketers say. Instead, each advertiser has had its own little eureka moment. When Joan Ren, deputy head of marketing for Chevrolet in China, first screened Old Boys, she knew the company "was onto something. I knew it was going to be big, and it was immediately apparent why." Ren is one of the marketing brains behind Old Boys. In her early 40s, she is a bit older than the generation Chevy targets for models like its popular Cruze — she graduated from college back in the easier days "when there still was supposed to be a government job waiting for you" — but she is an avid student of the '80s generation. As products of the one-child-policy era in China, the '80s set has been stereotyped as "a spoiled generation, kids — and particularly boys — who get whatever they want." The country's economic success since this generation entered the workforce has, if anything, only reinforced that idea. But the truth is more complicated than that. The '80s generation, says Ren, is the first that is "independent, that has been able to chart their own course from the start, and they have reaped many of the benefits of China's transition to a market economy." The flip side of that, she says, is that nothing, once they get into the workforce, has been handed to them. "Big pressure," she says, is a constant.
Pressure of precisely the sort that Yong described: find an affordable house in a crazed property market, work exhausting hours on the job and make sure your child is at the top of his class. "The idea that this generation has it easy is understandable in a historical context," says Ogilvy's Bell, "but it's really not right. This is a generation that has to sprint just to stay where they are. I call it Generation Stress."
No wonder its members like to look back fondly once in a while. A few months ago, Ren attended a national meeting of all the Chevy dealers in China. Most, she says, are in their late 20s or early 30s, and almost all are men: Generation Stress in formation. On the last evening of the convention, there were two special guests, the stars of Old Boys. As they sang and played music from the film, the audience "went crazy — they loved it." For the 300 people attending, she says, the emotional punch of a simpler time could not have been more obvious. "Half of them were laughing," Ren says, "and the other half crying."