Olympics ad campaigns feature global unity, except in China

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The Olympics could be a prime starting point for brands to deliver a new outlook. Too bad they prefer to fall back on overused themes

On August 5 the world will come together to celebrate the Olympic games. While much of the news coverage is questioning host city Rio de Janeiro’s preparedness for over 500,000 tourists, the marketing world is more focused on the 3.6 billion viewers expected to tune in worldwide.

An especially key audience for global brands is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), both because of the size of the market and the importance of the games to the national self-conception.

The 2016 Rio games marks just the 10th Olympic appearance by China. In 1952, 32 delegates were sent to Helsinki, Finland, but only one competitor arrived in time to compete. Subsequently, China would go on to withdraw from the Olympics and all other international sports federations for 25 years. Since 1984, the PRC has doubled the number of delegates it sends to compete to 412, a number exceeded only by the United States and host country Brazil. With such a large Olympic team, and the promise of a sizable medal haul, it’s no wonder that China takes considerable pride in its team.

But pride doesn’t necessarily translate into passion, which is why since the Beijing games in 2008, brands have been scrambling to come up with ad campaigns that will ignite the fervor of fans. However, this might be difficult to achieve if brands continue to recycle two tired themes—saccharine sentiment and Chinese nationalism.

Coca-Cola launched its global #ThatsGold campaign to spark “mutual understandings, friendships, solidarity, togetherness, inclusion and equality”.

While the world is watching a global campaign about togetherness through a multi-cultural lens of Olympic competitors, China gets its own adaptation on the theme of togetherness but with a cast that’s limited to Chinese teammates and their parents. 

Although the theme of both campaigns is meant to be sharing and togetherness, the delivery, tonality and emotions are completely different. While the global ad, celebrating world unity, is upbeat and hopeful, the Chinese ad continues with themes of devotion, dedication and bonding only with those closest to us. Coke is purposefully plucking at Chinese heartstrings to conjure up nationalistic pride.

Using similar tactics to Coke’s global campaign, Samsung shot a beautiful, ethereal video combining 15 national anthems together to create one world anthem. Their hope was to deliver a message of unity and shared humanity. Listening to anthems from Botswana to Malaysia, the Chinese anthem is conspicuously absent.

What China received instead was another local adaptation, this time an invocation for all Chinese citizens to try their hardest (????). This digital campaign is a call to action asking netizens to film themselves dancing to a pop hit performed by the band GALA. (Note here they’ve replaced China’s actual national anthem with an anthemic pop song).

The only other country to get its own local adaptation of the Samsung campaign is South Sudan, and deservedly so—it's entering the Olympics for the very first time.

These China adaptations send a conflicting message. On one hand, brands want Chinese consumers to feel respected and understood, yet at the same time they are communicating a message of isolation. While time will tell whether these adaptations are successful, they do make a bold, pessimistic statement: brands don’t feel that Chinese people identify as global citizens. 

Yet many Chinese people, and especially young people, are cosmopolitan. They’re incredibly active on digital platforms, always keeping up to date with global trends and happenings. Combined with the increase in overseas travel—this summer alone, we will witness the largest number of outbound travellers ever—China’s growing global connectedness is undeniable.

The Olympics is a major television event, and it could be a prime starting point for brands to deliver a new outlook rather than falling back on overused themes. With a little courage, brands could’ve used the openness of digital platforms to extend the idea of global connectedness to China.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

In Samsung’s case, instead of asking only Chinese netizens to film themselves dancing, they could’ve extended the dance-off to other Olympic nations. In return, Chinese netizens could’ve participated in other nations’ dance-offs. This could’ve hit home the message of unity and embracing cultural differences instead of feeding the shortsighted, monoculture stereotype often associated with China.

To promote exciting, progressive ideas is to offer new and unexpected thoughts that are geared more towards the future than the present. As Chinese consumers become more worldly, and China continues to partner with businesses abroad, there’s both a need and a desire to forge a common ground and build mutual tolerance. The Olympics provide the perfect opportunity, if only brands would seize it.

Cheryl Hung is project director at Flamingo Shanghai


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