Excerpts from an Essay on Korean TV

((Hello, readers of mine – this will be my last post on Korean-American culture clash for a while, I promise. However, I’ve had questions asked about my last post and what I meant about socio-geographic effects on the Korean entertainment industry. As it turns out, I already wrote a 4k essay on this in my first year of college, so I’ll just be posting excerpts. Also, my first year of college, I procrastinated on the essay, so please forgive the less-than-refined language. Further, although it does have sources, this was not for a research-oriented class and thus my sample was limited and the studies I chose were not as thorough as I had hoped them to be. Thus, rather than fact, please consider this essay food for thought.

Yes, this is just a way for me to procrastinate on original blog content. I’m sorry, I will return a more diligent blogger next week;; In any case:))

Advertising Languages in View of America and Korea (2014)

Being bicultural is a funny thing – it means that I can easily see both sides of culture shock or neither. Not until I watched television with my college roommates did I come to this realization. Appalled by the straightforward, perhaps even boring nature of the American advertisements, I immediately found a popular Korean advertisement on YouTube to show my roommates. I was then confused and almost embarrassed by the eccentric, over-the-top, fan-catering nature of Korean marketing. This was the result of me viewing American marketing with a Korean mindset and Korean marketing with an American one. Being bilingual and having lived equal halves of my life in South Korea and the United States, I had thought myself beyond the reach of culture shock. I met my match in the world of marketing – I now realize that, spoken and written language aside, the advertising language between America and Korea could not be more different. It is a language that many people take for granted, but examining how and understanding why advertisements differ between cultures can help businesses and people alike come to realize the cultural and ideological differences between countries. Thus, by examining and dissecting American and Korean advertisements that market the same product, I will show that these differences are a direct result of the distinctive historical and economic growth of the respective nations.

[I have a whole section comparing advertisements from NBC’s hit television show Hannibal here, but it takes up a full thousand words. Allow me to spare you.]

Just as influential on the distinct marketing styles between the countries, however, are the differences between the America and Korea’s economic development. For instance, the story of America’s industrialization takes place in a longer timeframe than Korea’s rapid modernization post-Korean War. Due to these differing timelines, the economic landscape of the two countries is similarly dissimilar. The actual landscape of the countries, in fact, also plays a part. The United States of America is a sprawling country with fifty individual states and a diverse assortment of people spread across the territory. The Republic of Korea, however, is smaller than most American states and has a far more focused distribution of people, the population centering around the capital Seoul and other cities. America has hundreds of different businesses, corporations, and conglomerates contributing to the vast country whereas Korea has a select few conglomerates that are, again, usually limited the country’s few cities. This changes the number of major players in the countries’ respective advertising industries and, thus, also changes how their approach to marketing from an economic standpoint. This difference in approach can easily be seen in commercials for electronics in both countries.

Due to the sheer number of electronic companies in the United States of America, it is impossible for a brand to build up a relationship with consumers based on promises alone. Thus, American marketing often adopts an information-oriented, product-based approach to advertising in attempt to show why the consumer should buy one particular brand over another (Alozie 158). This results in a “breadth over depth” (157) appeal to the audience in which advertisements name a spectrum of features a product possesses in order to show that the product can do more than its competitors. This can be seen in the iPhone 5s commercials from 2014 which consist of a montage of clips demonstrating different apps and features of the smartphone in attempt to show the versatility of the product. As another result of this need to prove a product superior, American marketing firms also frequently make use of comparative advertising in order to challenge a competitor and show their point (162).

In Korea, however, comparative advertising is often viewed as “too much”, bordering on disrespectful (162) whereas a barrage of information and features is often interpreted as a condescending “bribing” of consumers (162). Although these views could be traced back to collectivist values which encourage people to avoid confrontation in order to preserve social order, it is also reflective of the difference in Korea’s economic landscape. Due to both its size and its relative youth, the current Republic of Korea has far fewer major corporations in comparison to the United States. The chief major players in electronics can, in fact, be narrowed down to two conglomerates: Samsung and LG. Because each company has a limited number of competitors, Korean marketing firms can take on a radically different approach to marketing – one of emotional and personal connection to the consumer. Studies show that Korean advertisements attempt to “make friends with” and demonstrate empathy towards their audience (158), thus convincing consumers to buy products based on a feeling of familiarity and mutual trust. As a result, Korean product advertising is often less about the product itself and more about the image of the brand (Alozie 162). The advertisements are consistently less information-oriented than American ones, and any speech that occurs is less about boasting the product’s features and more about emotionally connecting with the audience. Furthermore, due to the limited number of competitors in the electronics industry and the shared pool of information amongst consumers, Korean advertisements do not need to rely on demonstrating a diverse array of pre-existing features – most of the population already knows they exist. Thus, Korean marketing techniques can instead focus on introducing one specific new feature their product possesses in a “depth over breadth” approach (157). This can be seen in the stream of commercials in Korea promoting the Samsung Galaxy S5’s waterproof nature. The advertisements are centered on this one feature, using it as a hook, a point of connection with the audience, as well as a selling point of the product.

The culmination of these Korean advertising patterns can be seen in one specific technique that Korean companies heavily depend upon: celebrity endorsement. Far more than in America, Korean society has an extremely close relationship with its celebrities that has only been growing stronger since the rise of the k-pop industry in 2010 (Lie 339). It is true that America also has a culture of celebrity endorsement in its advertising, but with only 20-25% of television advertisements involving a celebrity, the scale of it is to a lesser extent than South Korea which has at least a 57% celebrity endorsement rate (Doss 2). Korean depend heavily upon the rising k-pop industry to promote any and all products, be it fast food, public safety campaigns, electronics, or cosmetics. This is, again, due to a difference in the economic landscapes of the two countries, this time with a focus on the entertainment industry.

American celebrities arguably have a higher pedestal than Korean stars – the United States of America is a large country with an even larger population, and of that population, very few are celebrities. Because of this, celebrities are sensationalized, driven to publicity stunts no average person would dream of doing, and are also harder to come by. Celebrities are often removed from the conceptualized American public and, thus, celebrity endorsements alone are rarely enough to sell a product, especially when studies show that these advertisements have little impact on high-income American consumers (4). Thus, America makes use of the plain-face marketing technique which makes use of ordinary people in order to foster a sense of reliability and feasibility in the potential consumer. The plain-face technique again finds its roots in the American dream, as seeing an ordinary person instead of a celebrity using a product makes the audience feel as if they can easily make use of it as well. Although this may at first seem like a collectivist standpoint, the fact of the matter is that there is a pervasive “do-it-yourself” attitude in American society that encourages people to take action for themselves. The plain-face technique is not an appeal to peer pressure or conformity but acts as an advertiser’s appeal to credibility and feasibility, assuring the information-oriented American consumer that the product is reliable.

Korean advertisements, however, make limited use of plain face advertisements, instead choosing to show celebrities in ordinary situations themselves. As stated before, Korean society has a far more personal and accessible relationship with celebrities due to the way the country’s entertainment industry came to be. The Korean entertainment companies are clustered in the capital city of Seoul, which is the most populated region in the country. Due to the limited space and centralized celebrity industry, Korean stars are much more accessible to their public fanbase than their American counterparts. Furthermore, the country’s historic ties to Confucianism manifests in society’s respect for modesty, honesty, purity, and hard work, and these expectations are transferred onto the celebrity culture in Korea. As celebrities are expected to represent Korean values, celebrity culture is not focused on glamorous lifestyles so much as compassion and hard work (Lie 356). As such, top stars are often held up by adults as hardworking role models for children to a greater extent than in America and viewed upon fondly by elders. Because of this respect towards Korean celebrities, many marketing firms make use of these popular figures as a quick and easy way to establish a trusting relationship with the target audience as well as add in supplementary elements that are more likely to sell the product.

An example of such is the use of actress Lee Bo-young in LTE Warp’s campaign following the hit Korean drama I Hear Your Voice. It is undeniably a common trend in Korean advertising that popular television idols and actors become faces for a variety of campaigns, often to the point of mental saturation. However, it is also a common technique to see popular television characters, not actors, selling specific products. In the case of Lee Bo-young, most Koreans still remember her character’s surprised exclamation of, “Oh? Really?” at the revelation of KT Olleh’s new cell phone service deal. This, however, is rare in the United States due to a difference in the entertainment industry and economic development.

American television is brimming with hundreds of different channels including cable, and each of those channels has dozens of shows. This is not including filmography and various other activities American actors participate in at any one time. There are a great number of producers, a greater number of projects, and an even greater abundance of actors available at any given time, many of whom play multiple characters simultaneously. Due to this overwhelming surplus of material, it is unreasonable and ineffective for American advertising agencies to employ this method of marketing. However, the Korean entertainment industry is, again, very much centralized in the capital city of Seoul, and while cable channels do exist, their products are often less popular than the shows available on the country’s three main broadcasting stations: SBS, MBC, and KBS (Lie 351). As such, the number of high publicity projects available for the country’s actors are few and always competing for top ratings against rival channels, and the culture’s tendencies toward trends can cause a popular show to skyrocket. Because these popular shows only air twice a week, they often go on for months, granting an advertising agency at least a year of on-air and post-air hype to capitalize upon with the use of one popular character.

Looking at all this, it becomes increasingly clear that for any product, there is a great deal of translation that must be done before it crosses between America and Korea. The differences in the advertising language between the two cultures are innumerable, but careful analysis of the advertisements in view of the two countries’ distinct […] economic developments reveals that these differences are inevitable. So yes, American advertisements are still too informational and straightforward for me, and sometimes Korean promos are a tad too ridiculous for me to take seriously, but as I have lived in both countries, with a bit of effort, I can understand the advertising language of both cultures. However, like any language, the advertising language of both countries is slowly changing as the cultures continue to change. By watching how the advertising language and marketing techniques of these cultures transform in the future, perhaps we will be able to track the development and progression of the countries’ respective ideologies and cultural identities and come to understand them better as a whole.


Works Cited

Alozie, Emmanuel C. Advertising in Developing and Emerging Countries: The Economic, Political and Social Context. Farnham: Gower, 2011. Print.

Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Doss, Samuel. "The Transference of Brand Attitude: The Effect on the Celebrity Endorser." Journal of Management and Marketing Research(n.d.): n. pag. Print.

Hannibal. AXN. Seoul, South Korea, 2013. Television.

Hannibal. NBC. New York City, New York, 2013. Television.

Irvine, Judith T., and Susan Gal. "Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation." Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, 2000. 35-84. Print.

Kohls, L. Robert. Learning to Think Korean: A Guide to Living and Working in Korea. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural, 2001. Print.

Lie, John. "What Is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity." The Korea Observer 43 (2012): 339-63. ProQuest Social Sciences Premium Collection. Web.

Miracle, Gordon E., Kyu Yeol Chang, and Charles R. Taylor. "Culture and Advertising Executions: A Comparison of Selected Characteristics of Korean and US Television Commercials." International Marketing Review 9.4 (1992): n. pag. Web.

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