Media: The Changing Face of Advertising

by Dale Sproule

If you think the world of advertising is similar to what you see on the hit tv series, Mad Men, then you are about 50 years behind the times. During the glory days of the advertising agency, ad-men (and they were almost all men) seemed to have all the answers. They knew how to sell a tube of toothpaste, a fl ashy car or a package of cigarettes with clever ad campaigns in magazines, newspapers, and on television, radio and billboards.

Of course, a great deal has changed since then. Not only is smoking cigarettes now forbidden in Canadian boardrooms and meeting rooms – regulations severely limit the advertising or even showing cigarettes on-screen in this country. The same is true of hard liquor. Regulators also keep a careful eye on advertising aimed at young children, ads that stereotype or insult women or people from ethnic minorities.

The Power of Media

Media has a great deal of influence on our daily lives. It defines issues by telling us what is important and what is not important and it shapes public opinion by suggesting what is good and what is bad.

The images and stories in newspapers, magazines and television define social norms and ideals, and by doing that, they can strongly influence our both our social viewpoint and our self-esteem. Images of skinny models are accused of making normal women feel inadequate. The incidence of violence in movies is accused of making violence in real life seem more acceptable.

Traditional advertising uses the power of media to define our likes and dislikes in order to persuade us to use certain products.

The Changing Audience

Social responsibility and political correctness established themselves very gradually in the media landscape. Other changes came more abruptly. The 1990’s was a period of great transformation in the Canadian advertising industry.

A 1991 article by Barbara Aarsteinsen in the Toronto Star, titled “Firms Get Ready to Serve Ethnic Market Diversity” said, “Obvious targets - yuppies, silver foxes (affluent seniors) and the rest of that free-spending ilk – have blinded many Canadian manufacturers and retailers to the potential of the country’s growing immigrant communities, analysts and consultants say.”

Aarsteinsen states, “The so- called ethnic market is still filled with all kinds of gaps, but relatively few marketers, especially mainstream corporate Canada, have jumped in.”

The article quotes business consultant Jerry White, who says, “There are so many new people coming to Canada, and most of them are from emerging countries with strong ethnic characters, that ignoring this market will be tantamount to suicide.”

It took a long time for marketers to realize that the fastest growing source of new consumers was no longer our high schools and universities, but other countries.
Ethnic ad agencies like Dynasty, Crimson, ERA and Prime were all established around that time. According to Dynasty Advertising and Communications’ founder and managing director, Albert Yue, the original challenges they faced have still not entirely disappeared.

“At that point – and it still is now – you’re trying to sell a niche market which can well be rather low on the agenda. I had to convince people. Show them why […] they should consider putting a slice of their marketing budget into this type of consumer.”

Crimson Advertising Managing Partner, Anthony Cheng suggests that ethnic marketing really found its footing in the mid to late 90s. “There was a huge influx of Chinese from Hong Kong, at the same time as there was a major recession going on in North America. A lot of clients were saying ‘our customers are not buying, they don’t have the money.’ Then along comes this saviour of cash abundant Hong Kong Chinese consumers. That was a stage when the Chinese market was really important. […] That stopped quite suddenly after the handover of Hong Kong when things settled down. But by then the mainland Chinese population was growing exponentially.”

Unlike earlier waves of immigration, the people entering Canada at the dawn of the 21st century were from visible minorities – people who came from cultures very different from the traditional western culture(s) that the ad industry was so good at reaching.

Traditional advertising didn’t stop working entirely, but the numbers started to fall.

Reaching New Audiences

“The mainstream agencies are not totally in tune with cultural recognition and sensitivities because it’s a new thing for them,” says Yue. “They try to be as culturally respectful as possible by showing ethnic groups in commercials and that is a step in the right direction, however it can be seen as very cosmetic. They know the mainstream target market very well. However – whether this [mainstream] concept resonates with a Chinese consumer... or South Asian consumer... or Korean consumer is another story.

“For a marketer to succeed in culturally diverse markets, one has to be sensitive to the specific needs of ethnic groups, respect their unique culture and values, which could be very different from the mainstream market.”

Cheng says, “You need to understand the nuances, the cultural differences... to find a particular strategy to talk to a particular group. But on the flip side, you also need to recognize that this is a fusion between the Canadian lifestyle/culture and whatever culture that the audience is coming from. We try to analyse the typical settlement and settling in period and your needs – at different times you’re going through different psychological stages and you have different needs – different things will appeal to you differently. We look at it [as a] transition in lifestyle; fusioning and innovation or assimilation between their own culture and their new lifestyle.”

Cheng and Yue agree on the strategy of looking for similarities rather than differences [between the ethnic and mainstream cultures]. In agency-speak “Finding common ground promotes stronger brand synergy.”

Sometimes, the ethnic agencies simply run the mainstream ads in the ethnic media, but usually, they do some adaptation, whether it is adding sub-titles or overdubbing the mainstream ads. Sometimes, the adaptation is quite drastic.

Cheng gets very animated when he talks of a campaign where the mainstream concept was adapted for the Chinese market. It was targeted at “the younger generation (who in most cases are already more assimilated than the older generation).” Cheng says,

“We recognize that they are still close to their culture, their home and their parents. Because the mainstream campaign was using a fantasy scenario, we created this Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon type fantasy and married it to the mainstream approach. But we did it in a very culturally relevant manner – something they could really relate to and engage in. To this audience, this kung fu martial arts approach was more relevant and engaging.”

Then there are those times, says Yue, when, “…we can’t use mainstream concepts at all. Like with cultural festivals: Chinese New Year festival, Bouzaki Festival, Diwali festival.”

It took decades, but finally the corporations have started coming around. Both Yue and Cheng had nothing but praise for their clients.

Yue says with a smile, “There are clients who realize there is something cultural going on.”

But it doesn’t end there. Cheng pointed out that “While we [talk] about how people settle in and adapt themselves into the Canadian culture – that actually works two ways – when elements from the new culture start influencing the host culture. Canadian businesses are recognizing that change in culture and demographics and are responding to it. Adapting themselves to it – so it really is an interactive process. It’s a cultural phenomenon that shows that people are really becoming more acquainted, open to different cultures.”

There’s no better way to demonstrate how far we’ve come than to point out how kung fu, anime and Bollywood have become part of North American movies and television and are even being used to sell mainstream products to Western kids. The face of advertising isn’t just changing – it has already changed.

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