Letter From Korea: Service With A Smile

To stimulate sales in a depressed economy, ads rely on humor
Adversity is the mother of invention. just ask korean advertisers and their agencies. At present, they are coping with a grim economic climate: Unemployment is rising, companies are going bankrupt and wages are being cut. With ad spending in the first quarter of this year down more than 30 percent, the name of the game is survival for agencies and clients alike.
Plus, after months of IMF-inspired austerity and restructuring, the knee-jerk “Buy Korean, Save Korea” campaign that appeared when the country lurched into crisis last December has lost its luster.
How are agencies responding? They are switching creative gears, hoping humor will combat monetary woes. New, irreverent themes are creeping into Korean ads. “So much is changing. People are trying to come to terms with reality and also escape its harshness,” says Young H. Min, campaign director at Welcomm Advertising.
“There are many interrelated strands,” adds Sang-Soo Chong, creative director of Ogilvy & Mather Seoul. While reliance on famous Korean models is increasing, there are more campaigns breaking new ground. “Only the brave used humor a year ago. Now, everyone tries to raise a smile,” he says.
Using light humor to fight financial worry is evident in several new campaigns, including Welcomm’s work for Shinsegae department store. Well-known models, such as TV actress
Won-Joo Jeon, symbolize worried housewives who have surprising experiences once they check out the store’s sales. In one spot, a housewife’s straight hair curls as the idea of shopping takes hold. In another, a magpie, a traditional harbinger of good fortune, lays an egg.
Humor is employed more directly in spots for OB Lager. Oriental Breweries recruited two veteran comedians and movie stars, Choi Jong-Won and Park Joong-Hoon, and let them ad lib on camera in a variety of beer-drinking settings.
There’s even cultural humor in Welcomm’s campaign for the Matiz, a compact Daewoo car. A giant Japanese Sumo wrestler is bowled over by the car’s ease of handling and energy efficiency. But Korea’s censors, who only view finished spots, didn’t get the joke.
They ruled that Japanese cultural icons could not be shown on Korean television. The spot was re-shot with an American wrestler and the Sumo star was relegated to print ads. The surprise? Consumers loved it! Sales topped 10,000 per month, doubling those of the Tico, Daewoo’s previous compact car.
What’s another surefire way to beat the blues?
A blast from the past. Remakes of old songs and TV shows allow consumers recall better times. Tapping nostalgia’s feel-good surge has helped Cheil Communications revamp the image of Samsung Electronics, South Korea’s largest advertiser.
“Consumers say there is no difference between products from the major makers. They see corporate image as key when choosing what to buy,” explains Cheil account director Yoon-Kwan Choi. Image was Samsung’s weak point. “People saw the company as technologically strong but lacking in humanity and warmth–two factors consumers respond to,” says Choi.
Cheil’s answer was to return to the 1970s, when few could afford electronics, for the Won 1 Billion campaign. Korean folk dolls are used to tell real-life stories, such as Korean boxer Su-Hwan Hong winning the WBA bantamweight championship in ’74. His mother, watching the fight on a communal black-and-white television, gets a phone call from her victorious son and cries with joy. “Those were days when people did not have much money and few modern products, yet they lived happy lives and had warm relationships,” says Choi. According to Cheil, polls demonstrate that Samsung’s icy image is melting.
But how are foreign advertisers faring in this volatile economy?
For Nike, a foreign brand widely known in Korea, neither image nor a tradition of market leadership could sustain sales, which dropped more than 50 percent from December to February. In “Because,” a new campaign from LG Ad, Nike gives the consumer a solid reason to buy each of the two dozen Nike products on sale.
“The concept is to get inside the mind of the consumer and speak his language. Copy is very specific and relevant to each sport and product,” says Simon Wilson, LG’s creative director.
For instance, an ad for Nike’s Air Franchise Trainer features Park Chan-Ejo, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Copy reads: “Because a fastball starts with your foot.” An ad for a basketball shoe, the Air Zoom Flight, shows a profile of the product and reads, “Because I’m a guard.” Body copy supplies the usual supporting technical details.
Nike is concerned with image, since it was one of the foreign brands attacked in the “Buy Korean” effort. Korean rival Prospecs ran ads showing a foot wrapped in dollar bills. “Are you wearing dollars?” asks the copy. Nike, however, was spared the boycotts that have hurt imported cars and cigarettes.
Of course, World Cup season and Nike’s corporate citizenship role as a sponsor of South Korea’s soccer team, whose players wear Nike shoes, helped. According to Wilson, the “Because” campaign, with integrated print and in-store activity, may be stabilizing Nike’s sales.
While patriotic advertising may tug at the heartstrings, there’s no evidence that it’s enough to rescue troubled brands. Prospecs and their agency, Welcomm, parted company after the “Dollars” campaign and inconclusive discussions about payment for future work. The country’s economic plight emerges in other ways. Lines such as “For Dad, who’s under a lot of stress” surface in spots for everything from beer to telecommunications.
There is a frenetic race to win in the one category where budgets are flowing: mobile telephones. Competition between the five competing service providers has spawned humorous campaigns that exploit slight points of difference.
A Welcomm campaign for Hansol Telecom, modeled loosely on a chase scene in The Graduate, dramatizes a pricing difference for call charges. In one SK Telecom spot from Cheil Bozell, a lecherous man tries to give the kiss of life to a young woman rescued from a traffic accident. But the ring of the mobile phone revives her–and she delivers a knockout punch.
More recently, to escape the rising tide of mobile gags, an SK Telecom spot takes a different tack. It shows an executive walking through a bamboo forest with a Buddhist monk, remarking that as one enters a new world, sometimes it’s best to turn the phone off.
For some agencies, however, adversity brings opportunity. Multinationals and Korean agencies routinely debate the merits of sale, acquisition and partnership. Welcomm, considered by many the most consistently creative Korean agency, is talking with TBWA Chiat/Day, which, in turn, is talking to Dong Bang Advertising. Foote, Cone & Belding, which is considering a new startup in Korea, has received overtures from Korad Advertising, which wants a foreign partner to take a majority stake in the shop. Yet change is relative.
“Many foreign advertisers are still running last year’s campaigns. There’s a degree of caution. Decision making is slow, and Korea has always proved a tough market to crack,” says Chong.
Here, survival is an ongoing challenge. The antidote to despair is often laughter, aided by nostalgia. It’s a prescription insiders hope will help resuscitate an industry and an economy in crisis. –David Kilburn can be reached at kilburn gol.com