Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Ministry of Industry and Informatization

A recent pair of jeans came with a label with a girl in pigtails wearing jeans, a bra, and big, square-shaped glasses. She gives the camera a disdainful glance: she’s a rebel. The label says, “L.d.s. denims. Retro funk. How is the female body shown to SEXY and GLAMOUROUS, or is it felt? WE propose the foundation of GLAMOUROUS LIFE.”

I love these kinds of ads. You can find them everywhere in China: on shirts, on billboards, on bags. Chinese advertisers use their limited English to translate from Chinese, and expats spend a good chunk of their time making fun of them. Usually it’s possible to figure out what the advertisers wanted to say, but sometimes it’s not. (Another favorite says: “BLOOK. God continent row blook. God continent numerous blook. All kinds of blook IP. Move zone.” That’s an advertisement for phone cards, isn’t it obvious?)

Stores will spend vast amounts of money making huge, elaborate signs with atrocious English. In a central part of Shanghai, where thousands of foreigners walk every day, there’s an ad for tourism to Heilongjiang with absolutely terrible English grammar. The prominent location must have cost a bundle: couldn’t the advertiser have taken five minutes of his life to go on the street and ask one of Shanghai’s thousands and thousands of foreigners whether the English was correct? Even top government institutions make these kinds of mistakes. When talking about the telecom industry, the government uses the word “informatization” all the time, which makes perfect sense in Chinese (信息化 xinxihua), but not in English.

At bottom, Chinese ads, in Chinese, are just as stupid as American ones. They use the same tricks: pretty girls, flashy graphics, the assertion that everyone’s doing it! But when they’re translated to English, they become silly, and their purpose is starkly clear, enough to make you cringe. “WE propose the foundation of GLAMOROUS LIFE”: for an English speaker, it’s obvious what they’re trying to do—make you think these pants will make you glamorous—but it’s so silly that it fails miserably.

Because of their (unintended) ability to reveal the tricks and the absurdity that lie behind the logic of advertising, Chinese ads in English are extremely useful. Capitalism in China is more immature than in the U.S. and other advanced capitalist countries, so it is easier to spot marketing strategies. Advertising here, after all, uses the same underlying strategies that accompany consumer capitalism in advanced capitalist societies (just go to the business section of a Chinese bookstore to see where businesspeople are getting their ideas), but when it is done so badly, the silliness is exhibited in full. I’m reminded of an interesting argument in feminist theory, which says that pornography can serve a useful purpose because it puts underlying societal gender relationships on stark, cringe-worthy display; these ads do the same for the logic of consumer capitalism: advertisers must appeal to us in the most simplistic, egocentric ways, invoking our need to feel good about ourselves. Chinese advertisers use the same logic as American advertisers, but do it badly, thus rendering it obvious, funny, and, in a way, harmless.

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