Korean Sociological Image #30: Exploiting Koreans’ Body Insecurities

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Like everywhere else, Korea has a long tradition of celebrities endorsing government campaigns.

Unlike everywhere else, a “huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people,” says Bruce Haines, head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide, a tendency which in its crudest form degenerates Korean advertising into merely “beautiful people holding a bottle.” In turn, that leads to a scramble for and subsequent overexposure of whichever Korean stars are most popular at that moment, regardless of their inappropriateness for the product(s).

Government campaigns are no different, to my mind the most notorious case still being the National Election Commission’s (중앙선거관리위원회) choice of The Wondergirls (원더걸스) to encourage people to vote in local elections in April 2008. Needless to say, I can’t think of anyone more inappropriate than teenagers (two of whom were only 15), and their choice of outfits simply beggars belief:

But again, no different to what they wore in commercials at the time. Which is precisely my point: regardless of their merits, major trends in advertising are bound to be reflected in government campaigns sooner or later.

And as long term readers of this blog will be well aware, one trend is encouraging consumers to associate certain foods and drinks with certain desired body shapes. While it is hardly unique to Korea, it is done to excess here.

Is it any wonder then, that with the decline of the domestic rice industy, and concerns food security as a whole, that the government would do the same when promoting the consumption of domestic foods and drinks?

Last year for instance, I gave the example of how the Korean rice wine Makgeolli (막걸리) was being marketed to women on the basis that it is supposedly good for one’s skin. Now, I’ve found two more examples by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (농림수산식품부; MIFAFF), using the new group 4Minute (포미닛) and the Olympic medalist Park Tae-hwan (박태환) respectively:

To be clear, I am not saying that either are inappropriate choices. Actually I think they’re rather good: both are very popular, and it turns out that 4minutes’ egg song is a variation of their recent hit “Hot issue” too. I also fully concede that the connections between consumption of the product and obtaining an attractive body are fleeting (4minute) or merely implied (Park Tae-hwan) at best.

But still, they’re there. And given the long-term problems with Korean agriculture as identified above, then I hereby predict that we’re going to be seeing many more public campaigns like these in 2010. In particular, the links made between the products being advertised and obtaining an “S-line” and so on are going to be made more explicit.

Sound like an exaggeration? Well, recall how quickly commercial incentives have transformed decades-old standards for soju advertisements: just three years ago, they overwhelmingly offered virginal images of women, whereas now it’s rather difficult to find ones that don’t present them as eminently sexually available. Moreover, in an effort to appeal more to women, soju companies too are encouraging them to associate new lower-strength brands with maintaining a good body, however implausibly.

But perhaps an even more appropriate example is soy milk. If you’ll bear with me, being allergic to milk means that I follow developments in the soy milk industry here pretty closely, and Starbucks Korea’s belated decision to add soy to its menu in 2005 had a huge impact on my quality of life here! Not unlike the drinks themselves though (anybody know where I can find these flavored ones?) – or, indeed, government campaigns – soy milk commercials tend to be rather bland, so I certainly sat up and took notice when I first saw this one a few days ago:

Soy milk companies too then, seem to be adopting the tactics of their more popular counterparts now. Lest I appear overly critical though, consider the scene 0:03 from 0:06 where 17 year-old Kim Hyun-ah’s says “[S]라인을 유지하려면 어쩔 수 없어,” or “If you want to maintain your S-line, you have no choice but to [drink] this.” Despite my constant criticisms of that sort of thing, and my earnest desire that my daughters don’t grow up to repeat it, I have to admit that I can’t help but find her expression and tone of voice, well, extremely cute…

Yes, I know: very hypocritical of me, and I await your counsel. But on a final, more serious note, consider Garaetteok Day (가래떡데이), MIFAFF’s scheme since 2006 to get people to eat stick-shaped rice cakes instead of Pepero chocolate sticks on November 11 each year. Promoted mostly as a romantic event for couples, as are most imported and/or artificially created holidays (Christmas Day, for instance, is the date the most condoms are sold in Korea), is it really too much of a jump to imagine that concerns about one’s appearances will be added to that too? Watch this space!

Update: An alternative way of exploiting Koreans’ associations with November 11 (source):

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

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Posted in Korean Advertisements, Korean Economy, Korean Media, Korean Men's Body Images, Korean Sociological Images, Korean Women's Body Images Tagged: 4Minute, 농림수산식품부, 김현아, 포미닛, 원더걸스, 중앙선거관리위원회, Kim Hyun-ah, The Wondergirls