How To Avoid Getting Censored

Three years ago in China, Toyota had to pull two ads for an SUV after complaints about imagery showing two lions saluting and bowing to the car. Nine months later, Leo Burnett had to apologize for a trade magazine advertisement that showed a lion sliding off a pillar to demonstrate Nippon Paint’s smooth surface. The offense in both instances? Disrespecting a cultural icon thought to symbolize China itself. (It couldn’t have helped that both marketers were Japanese in a country still harboring animosity over past invaders.)

While U.S. regulations ensure ads not be false, misleading or deceptive, agencies in China further grapple with the nuances of cultural, social and political restraints. The China Advertising Association, under the auspices of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, has advisory oversight of such issues of appropriateness. Those rules were detailed in the Advertising Law of the People’s Republic of China, in effect since 1995. (In addition to government law, Chinese media have the discretion to reject any offensive ads.)

“The most common problems in ads from foreign companies are that they contradict Chinese tradition, moral issues and cultural background,” says Li Fang Wu, assistant secretary general, CAA, through an interpreter.

He ticks through some of the restrictions. Certain superlatives—”the best,” “the most”—are not allowed. Marketers can’t use the word “national,” show China’s flag or use its official song or images of its politicians (alive or dead, e.g., Mao is forbidden). Certain statistics or data, such as sales volume, can’t be used. Comparative claims aren’t permitted: “With a certain tea cup, you can’t say it’s better than traditional tea cups,” says Li.

More obviously, there are restrictions on nudity and bad language. Restraints on violence are subject to interpretation, based on dialogue. However, Li makes clear that “terror [or] killing of things is not allowed because it is not part of Chinese culture.”

The mildest punishment for inappropriate content is to pull the ad. The most serious penalty is a fine calculated at five times the cost of the ad’s media time. “If the ad relates to deceptive claims or bad behavior in society, this could occur. One of the main purposes of that is to make sure marketers get no benefit from the ads,” says Li.

The CAA is also a member organization with 613 companies represented. For the last 13 years, it has put on the China Advertising Festival, which hands out its distinctive “Great Wall” trophies. “The level of creativity in China has made great progress in the last five years, compared with Western countries or Hong Kong and Taiwan,” says Sun Yingcai, CAA vice secretary-general, through an interpreter. “We believe the gap is becoming smaller and smaller.”

His colleague, Li, however, cautions that evolution will occur on the government’s terms: “Probably the one obstacle in development of Chinese creative is that ads have to deal with social and government restrictions. Ads can’t make fun of some social problems or the government.”