Advertising in Hong Kong under Political Transition: A Longitudinal Analysis

image_pdfimage_print

Louisa Ha

[WJMCR 1:3 June 1998]

Sections:

Sections:

Abstract | Introduction | Method |Results | Discussion |Conclusion

Abstract

Hong Kong’s return to China has raised doubts about its ability to keep its status as the advertising capital of Asia. Hong Kong consumers were suffering from “incompetent new boss syndrome” and its advertising industry used different strategies to cope with their anxiety. This article studies the changes in advertising appeals and language use of Hong Kong advertising with a longitudinal analysis of advertisements published between 1991 and 1995. Results of this study show an emerging polarized use of language between local ads and foreign ads. Local products show an increase in the use of Chinese-only ads, while foreign products show an increase in the use of English-only ads.

Introduction

Hong Kong has enjoyed the status of being the advertising capital of Asia for the past two decades. It houses the largest number of multinational firms’ and advertising agencies’ regional headquarters in Asia. With the increasing importance of the Chinese-speaking market to multinational companies, many advertising agencies consolidate their Chinese-speaking market operations by forming a Greater China division and basing their operations in Hong Kong, with branch offices in mainland China and Taiwan.1

Apart from its strategic role as the center of advertising for Greater China, it has also been ranked as the city with the most economic freedom in the world.2 With Hong Kong returned to China July 1, 1997, one will question whether Hong Kong can continue to shine as the advertising pearl of the Orient. More important, what is the impact of the political change on the advertising industry in Hong Kong? How did the advertising industry cope with the impact of this political transition on the consumers?

Research Questions

This paper examines the changes in the language use and advertising appeals in Hong advertising under its political transition from being a British colony to China’s Special Administrative Zone. This political transition deserves particular attention because it is an anticipated change, not an abrupt overturn of government as in most political changes. Hong Kong consumers had to wait 13 years to face the reality of the change of sovereignty from British to Chinese rule after the signing of the Joint Declaration of the Sino-British Agreement in 1984.

Advertisers try to appeal to what consumers need and want. Through the use of language, and endorsing the values that consumers treasure, advertising reflects the culture of consumers. Culture, as defined by Griffin and Pustay, is “a collection of values, beliefs, behaviors, customs, and attitudes that distinguishes a society.”3 The five basic elements of culture are language, social structure, communication, religion, values and attitudes. Being an East-West meeting point and under British colonial rule for more than 150 years, Hong Kong has a culture that can be characterized by a blend of Western (largely British and American) and Chinese culture. Western culture is characterized by individualism and competition while Chinese culture is characterized by collectivism and harmony. Many researchers study advertising to understand the culture of a society.4 But few have examined the potential impact of an anticipated political change on the cultural environment and the advertising practices of a market during a period of political transition. Two research question were posed in this study:

To understand the complexity of the advertising situation in Hong Kong, one should begin with understanding the unique role of the English language in creating a bilingual culture for Hong Kong, and the forces behind the indigenization of foreign culture in Hong Kong’s media and advertising.

The Role of English

The English language enjoys a unique status in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, English is the language of success, while Chinese is the language of ethnic, social, and cultural identity.5 As a former British colony, Hong Kong uses English as its official language. Although 98 percent of the population in Hong Kong is Chinese, it was only until 1974 that the Chinese language was also accepted as an official language.6 English is not only an official language and the lingua franca of instruction, but also a prestigious language which is the ticket to work in the government and in business.7 The Anglo-Chinese education system has also fostered Hong Kong residents’ receptivity toward the Western culturelearn English from the first day of school. Most of the high schools in Hong Kong are Anglo-Chinese schools which teach all subjects in English except Chinese and Chinese history. Textbooks are mostly written in English. Ironically, despite the strong effort of the former British colonial government and businesses to promote English in Hong Kong, the English standard of Hong Kong is the lowest among all former British colonies.8 Some scholars scornfully described Hong Kong residents as “cultural eunuchs” that are able to acquire only the superficial level of the Western and Eastern culture.

Several studies have found that English is heavily used in Asian advertising.9Hong Kong, as the advertising capital of Asia, takes the lead in using English in its advertising. Although the usage of the English language does not necessarily imply that consumers identify with the western culture, its popularity means that English offers an additional value in creating a fashionable, trendy, and an exclusive image for products.

Hong Kong: A Melting Pot of Eastern and Western culture

Because of strong western influence, Hong Kong’s advertising has been characterized as a banana, which has yellow skin outside but a white body inside.10 Yellow represents the Chinese culture, while white represents the western culture. Although many ads in Hong Kong use the Chinese language, either wholly or partly, they appeal to many Western values, or to the consumer culture in which “the quality of life is judged on the attainment of objects, their use, disposal, and the acquisition of others.”11 Tse, Belk and Zhou’s comparison of the ads in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, also found Hong Kong as the most westernized among the three markets during the period 1979 to 1985.12 Taiwan was converging its style to Hong Kong’s while mainland China’s advertising was still very different from Hong Kong. To explain why Hong Kong advertising has such westernized character, one must look beyond the colonial rule and the importance of English discussed earlier.

Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that do not have any cultural protectionist measures.13 No quota or restriction is set on the importation of foreign media content. The openness of Hong Kong to foreign culture has been facilitated by the mandatory presence of English media. The two English TV channels have very few locally produced programs, but they provide 24-hour programming. Most of their programs are bought either from the United States or the United Kingdom. Viewers who would like to watch American soap operas can just tune in the local English TV channel to watch Days of Our Lives. With such abundant supply of western TV programs, it is natural that Hong Kong Chinese consumers are accustomed to western culture, and are more westernized than the Chinese consumers in other parts of Greater China.

The advertising industry in Hong Kong is dominated by American multinational advertising agencies. Among its top 10 advertising agencies in 1995, nine were the subsidiaries of American multinational agencies.14 Most of the copywriters of these agencies are local Hong Kong Chinese who have studied abroad. Usually they are under the supervision of American or English-speaking executive creative directors. Many multinational advertisers require a high degree of standardization so that the ads are either a total transfer, or a local translation of the ads that their headquarters create. Even when the local copywriters are allowed to produce their own ads, with their background and training in the West, advertisements produced by these agencies are likely to have a western look, or at least a western graphic design style. In addition, the state-of-art in advertising is defined from a western perspective. Advertising awards used to be judged mainly by English-speaking advertising professionals. It was only until recently that Chinese-language ads won major prizes in Hong Kong’s annual advertising awards.15

Impact of Political Changes on Hong Kong Consumers

1. Uncertainty and Political Distrust

According to the Joint Declaration of the Sino-British Agreement, the governing of Hong Kong is based on the Basic Law. Hong Kong is the first place in the world to adopt the “one country two system” principle in which China promised to maintain Hong Kong’s capitalist system for 50 years after June 30, 1997. Wilkins and Bates conducted a poll of a representative sample of Hong Kong residents in 1995 and found a high level of political distrust against the mainland Chinese government.16 They found a high level of uncertainty on the future of Hong Kong and a strong sense of powerlessness. In general, Hong Kong residents treasured the freedom of speech that they were enjoying17, but many expected that such freedom would be restricted after 1997. Hong Kong’s press system would become more repressive.18 In fact, many self-censorship cases have been found among the press in Hong Kong. It tried to avoid conflicts with the mainland Chinese government by reducing the negative reports on China.19 One of the consequences of the political uncertainty was the severe brain drain of professionals emigrating overseas. Canada, Australia, and the United States were the three most popular emigrating destinations for Hong Kong residents. The estimated number of Hong Kong residents emigrating to these three countries increased more than threefold, from 1982’s 20,864 to 1992’s 71,238.20 Another accompanying consequence was the “astronaut” phenomenon.21 This phenomenon was a flux of Hong Kong professionals who have emigrated to another country but return to Hong Kong for making money, leaving their spouses and children in the other country. The Chinese translation of “astronaut” was given a new meaning-a husband without a wife. Many of these returned professionals work in southern China and their loneliness prompted many of them to have extramarital affairs. Emigration and the “astronaut” phenomenon have caused a breakdown of families and friends. Beginning from 1995, the economy of Hong Kong suffered a downturn with a retail slump, a much higher unemployment rate and a slower economic growth than in the past decade. In such depressing atmosphere, the optimism that many consumers still have in the early 1990s dwindled. Appeals in advertising might also need to be more pragmatic to alleviate the depressing atmosphere.

2. The “Incompetent New Boss Syndrome” and Increased Ties with China

Would Hong Kong advertising continue to maintain its “banana” character, with mixed language use and endorsing western values, or would it become more Chinese with the return to its motherland? One may predict Hong Kong’s advertising practice by the “incompetent new boss syndrome.” This syndrome, commonly found in workplace, is proposed as an analogy to describe the complex feelings of Hong Kong residents toward the takeover by China. It is characterized by a high level of anxiety with the changes that the new boss may impose on its subordinates. The anxiety is caused by an anticipated incoming new boss who has a bad track record in the past and is perceived as incompetent by the subordinates because the subordinates have comparatively superior qualifications or performance than the new boss.

Hong Kong consumers suffered from this “incompetent new boss syndrome” in anticipating China’s takeover of Hong Kong. They were the anxious subordinates who were more affluent and modernized than their incompetent new boss, the Communist Chinese government. Many Hong Kong residents used to be Chinese citizens and took refuge in Hong Kong after the Communists’ takeover of China in 1949. They were well aware of the new boss’s notorious reputation as a brutal and corrupt government. The Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the Cultural Revolution in 1966-1976, the Great Leap Forward in 1958-1960, and the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957-1958 are all historical landmarks of the oppressive nature of its rule.

Convergent and Divergent: Two Coping Strategies

To cope with this inevitable anxiety that obsessed consumers in Hong Kong, the advertising industry could employ two crisis-coping strategies: the convergent style and the divergent style. The convergent strategy is a strategy that tries to practice in the same way as the source of the crisis. The divergent strategy is a strategy that tries to practice in a different way from the source of the crisis.

If the advertising industry chose to employ the convergent strategy in coping with incompetent new boss syndrome, it would respond to it by adjusting itself to appease the new incompetent boss, following exactly what the new boss likes. One can expect that English will lose its status as the prestigious language after China’s takeover. To appeal to consumers’ desire for a stronger Chinese identity, advertising should converge with mainland China’s advertising style. Indeed, some advertising professionals in Hong Kong predicted that advertising produced in Hong Kong would become more independent with a distinctive flavor, rather than imitating the West.22

Nonetheless, predicting what the new boss (China) likes is not easy. For example, one should note that across the members of the Cultural China-Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese,23the aspiration to the Western life-style is high. Actually, mainland China itself currently is also influenced strongly by Western advertising practices.24 A study comparing the information content between Hong Kong TV commercials and China’s TV commercials suggests that Hong Kong’s and China’s advertising are moving at opposite directions: Hong Kong’s advertising has become more direct, hard-sell, and rational; China’s advertising has become more indirect, soft-sell, and more image-oriented.25Another study comparing U.S. and Chinese cultural values reflected in TV advertising also shows that Chinese advertising emphasizes symbolic value rather than utilitarian value to consumers in mainland China.26

If the advertising industry chose to employ the divergent style in coping with the “incompetent new boss syndrome,” it would avoid identifying itself with China and endorse Western values to distract consumers from the reality of becoming part of China. As a result of the “incompetent new boss syndrome,” the subordinates will defy the new boss by developing their own way to show the new boss their own distinct identity and qualifications. Instead of converging with China, advertising style in Hong Kong can become more Westernized by increasing usage of the English language and Western values to appeal to consumers. Hedonistic values such as easy, relaxed, excitement, and sensory gratifications should be emphasized in the advertisements.

Would Hong Kong advertising become more Chinese by endorsing the traditional Chinese values? Or will the political change foster Hong Kong consumers’ escapist attitude of seeking immediate materialistic gratifications, which are considered as Western? Based on the convergent response strategy to the “incompetent new boss syndrome,” one would expect Hong Kong consumers prefer to identify with the Chinese culture more than as a colonial subject of the British kingdom as before. Nevertheless, deep down in the hearts of Hong Kong consumers, narcotics may taste better than reality. They may prefer the divergent response strategy by indulging themselves in a consumer culture and seeking immediate gratifications that money can buy.

Language usage and values are two important elements of culture. As stated earlier, Chinese language is the cultural identity while English is the success symbol for Hong Kong consumers. Values are priorities that people place in their lives. Traditional values such as harmony and family ties are rooted in the Chinese culture.27 Western values such as individualism and physical excitement are foreign to China. Any change in usage of language or emphasis of values in advertisements can reflect the advertiser’s coping strategy during this political transition period. If usage of the Chinese language or traditional values in advertising increases, this means that advertisers employ a convergent strategy by strengthening their cultural identification with China. If usage of the English language or western values increases, this means that advertisers employ a divergent strategy by differentiating their ads from the Chinese way.

Method

Measurement

This study analyzed the changes in language use and cultural values in Hong Kong advertisements. Three types of language use were identified: 1) English only, 2) mixed use of English and Chinese, and 3) Chinese only. To qualify as a Chinese-only ad, an ad must not contain any English word except an English brand name that goes along with the Chinese brand name. As for cultural values, Rokeach distinguished between instrumental values and terminal values.28 Terminal values are values that are ideal and desirable for human beings such as happiness and love. Instrumental values are ways that can achieve terminal values such as being heroic and sexy. For clarity purposes, terminal values in this study are in the form of nouns and instrumental values are in the form of adjectives. Based on the Pasadeos and Chi’s conceptualizations of traditional appeals versus Western appeals,29 the instrumental values and terminal values that emphasize materialistic satisfaction and individualism were classified as “Western appeals.” The instrumental values and terminal values that emphasize respect for tradition, friendship, and collectivism were classified as “traditional appeals.”30 The instrumental and terminal values used in this study were based on Rokeach’s suggestions, with the addition of other common values found in advertising identified by the author. An advertisement may contain both traditional appeals and Western appeals.

Traditional Appeals

Twelve value items were used to indicate traditional appeals. Instrumental values such as traditional, stylish, heroic, and familial/friendly; terminal values such as health/life, safety, happiness, love, success, social approval, harmony, and economy, were indicators of traditional appeals.

Western Appeals

Twelve value items were used to indicate Western appeals. Instrumental values such as individualistic, intelligent, sexy, easy, funny, natural/fresh; terminal values such as comfort, excitement, perfection, convenience, and freedom/equality were indicators of Western appeals.

Sampling and Procedures

The method of content analysis with a longitudinal perspective was employed in this study to examine the change in language use and advertising appeals. To minimize internal confounding factors, such as the difference in target audience and editorial emphasis, which can affect the results in a longitudinal analysis, a single magazine title rather than a broad selection of magazines was chosen as the sampling frame. Moreover, using a single magazine allows inclusion of all ads in the whole issue so that leading advertisers, who may be found in premium positions only or buy more than one page, and small advertisers, who may not buy a whole page, would not be omitted. Since the layout of the advertisement may affect the choice of language and advertising appeals in the ads, the layout of the ads were categorized into copy-heavy, visual dominant and mixed layouts. Copy-heavy layouts were ads that had more than 50 percent of the space devoted to textual materials, visual-dominant layouts were ads that had more than 50 percent of the space devoted to the visual materials, and mixed layouts were ads that had equal emphasis of texts and visuals.

Next magazine, a non-partisan newsweekly, was chosen because it was the Chinese magazine with the highest circulation in Hong Kong and the first commercially successful news magazine in Hong Kong since its history. A news magazine was also a better type of magazine to examine the effect of political changes on advertising because its readers were more interested in politics. Its advertising might have closer association with the political momentum of the time. Its large circulation could be attributed to its broad appeal to both adult men and women. In 1991, its circulation was 75,000 and readership was 315,000. It was the time when the magazine first become the most popular magazine in Hong Kong with the highest pass-along readership.31 By 1995, its audited circulation was more than doubled to 162,52132 and readership jumped to 1.06 million.33 The booksize of the magazine has also been doubled due to its growth in advertising pages.

Because of the great disparity in the number of advertising pages in each issue of Next between 1991 and 1995, a fixed number of ads, instead of a fixed number of issues, was set as the sampling criterion. The unit of analysis was an advertisement of any size. As a result, 389 ads from eight issues published in 1991, and 389 ads from four issues published in 1995 were analyzed in this study. The issues were selected at random from each year. All ads in each selected issue were analyzed except the last selected issue of 1995 in which the last five ads were omitted. The simple random sampling method was used in this study because it requires no assumptions about variation in media content.34 Although an earlier period than 1991 would be much more desirable to chart the changes, Next did not publish until 1990.

The author coded all the advertisements and an independent Hong Kong coder who had no knowledge about the purpose of study was trained and coded 10 percent of the ads. The reliability coefficient was calculated using Perreault and Leigh’s reliability index which adjusted for the bias of the number of categories and agreement due to chance.35 The reliability index for the language use is 0.91, and the reliability index for instrumental values and terminal values are .79 and .82 respectively. In total, 778 ads were analyzed in this study. Three-quarters of the ads were single page ads and 61 percent of the ads had visual-dominant layouts.

Results

Most of the sampled ads were for foreign products (66 percent), consistent with the results of Pasadeos and Chi’s study that Hong Kong advertising has been dominated by foreign products.36 Nevertheless, as shown in Table 1, local products increased its advertising presence from 30 percent in 1991 to 38 percent in 1995. The most common origins of the foreign products were Europe excluding the United Kingdom (19.3 percent), the United States (17.7 percent), and Japan (11.4 percent).


Table 1. Characteristics of Ad Samples by Product Origin
Product Origin19911995Total
Local Products29.6%37.8%33.6%
Foreign Products70.4%62.2%66.4%
Total100%100%100%
(N)(389)(389)(778)

A majority of foreign ads were for perishables such as food and beverages. There were more ads for durables in 1995 than 1991 (Table 2). Most of them were for electric appliances such as big-screen TVs, computer systems, and stereo systems. There was an increase in local ads for durables, but a decrease in local ads for perishables.


Table 2. Characteristics of Ad Samples by Product Type
19911995
Product TypeLocal %Foreign %Local %Foreign %Total %
Durables5116752234
Perishables4066145749
Services918112117
Total100100100100100
(N)(115)(274)(147)(242)(778)

To a much lesser extent, foreign ads also showed a gain in durables, and a drop in perishables.

Changes in Language Use

The advertised product’s origin seems to affect the usage of language in the ad. As shown in Table 3, foreign products were more likely to use English only than local products. Local products were more likely to use either Chinese only or mixed languages. There is a significant difference in the language use between the two years. Overall, a polarized trend in language use emerges as Hong Kong moved closer to 1997. Foreign products increase their usage of English-only ads at the expense of mixed language ads. Local products increased their usage of Chinese-only ads and reduced mixed language ads. Although the mixed usage of English and Chinese was still the mode in both 1991 and 1995, the proportion of mixed language ads decreased considerably from 72 percent to 59 percent.


Table 3: Changes in Language Use
19911995
Foreign
Products %
Local
Products %
Total %Foreign
Products %
Local
Products %
Total %
English only1551226417
Mixed usage757072635259
Chinese only103516114424
Total100100100100100100
(N)(274)(115)(389)(242)(147)(389)

c2 =49.54, df = 3, p < 0.001 (c2 = 24.39, df = 3, p<0.001)**Statistics in parentheses are based on four issues of
1991 and four issues of 1995.

There is a significant difference in the language use between the two years. Overall, a polarized trend in language use emerges as Hong Kong moved closer to 1997. Foreign products increase their usage of English-only ads at the expense of mixed language ads. Local products increased their usage of Chinese-only ads and reduced mixed language ads. Although the mixed usage of English and Chinese was still the mode in both 1991 and 1995, the proportion of mixed language ads decreased considerably from 72 percent to 59 percent.

Effects of Product Category and Country of Origin

To control for the effect of the product’s origin, separate c2 tests were conducted. The impact of year on language used is still significant after the factor of product’s country of origin has been controlled (c2foreign ad=33.61, df=3, p<0.001; c2local adc2=15.45,df=3, p<0.002). Foreign products were increasingly using the English language only in ads and reducing the use of mixed languages in ads, while local ads were increasingly using the Chinese language only in ads and maintaining similar use of mixed language ads.

Previous cross-cultural studies of advertising have shown that product type can affect advertising style. To ensure that the change in language use and advertising appeals was not confounded by the changes in product type in the sample, the product type by perishables and durables was controlled in the analysis. Similar statistically significant results were obtained. (c2consumer durables=21.56, df=3, p<0.001; c2 perishables=22.71, df=3, p<0.001). This means that the shift in language use was not confounded by the increase in durables ads and the decrease in perishables ads in 1995. Nonetheless, there was no significant difference in language use in services ads between the two years (c2services=4.6, df=3, p=0.2). Sevices ads remained consistent in their language use during the transition.

Special Use of English in the Ads

The choice of language was related to the layout design of the ad. When English-only ads and Chinese-only ads were selected, English-only ads were mainly found in visual-dominant layouts which had less than 50 percent of the ad space for copy. This relationship is no surprise because the English-only ads in Chinese magazines such as Next seldom have long copy. Similar to Cheng and Schweitzer’s findings that product category affects advertising strategy,37 results of this study also show that clothing and footwear ads were more likely to use English only in the ads. The English copy was used to create a mood, a sense of style, and an import identity, rather than conveying specific information about the product. A brief message such as “Texwood Basic Denim. Now comes with summer versions,” is the whole copy of the Apple Shop ad. More often, there was no body copy at all in the English-only ads. Typically, an English-only ad in Hong Kong is an image ad consisting only of a big visual, the brand name, and the names of the retail outlets that carry the product.

Changes in Traditional Appeals and Western Appeals

As for the appeals used in the ads, there seems to be a general decline in the usage of either traditional appeals or Western appeals between 1991 and 1995. As shown in Table 4, among the traditional appeals, the most significant declines were in the instrumental value appeal of being stylish, and the terminal values of happiness, success, and social approval. Fewer ads contained these appeals in 1995 than 1991. The only appeal that showed an increase in 1995 from 1991 was economy. This increase was apparent mainly in local products. Among the Western appeals, the sharpest decrease is in excitement. Individualistic, intelligent, sensory-satisfying, natural, and convenience were other Western appeals experiencing a significant drop in usage.


Table 4: Changes in Advertising Appeals
19911995
Foreign
Products %
Local
Products %
Foreign
Products %
Local
Products %
c2
(N=274)(N=115)(N=242)(N=147)
Traditional Appeals
Stylish6560293677.93*
Traditional1261190.00
Heroic1261111.59
Familial12181173.56
Health/life1261250.02
Safety1281160.23
Happiness2832121211.87*
Love1421791.83
Success3128121240.23*
Social Approval20217924.20*
Harmony56118.95*
Economy1419174011.41*
Western Appeals
Individualistic181710614.06*
Intelligent2632101529.00*
Sexy1151030.85
Sensory-satisfying252418129.82*
Easy58333.52
Funny12101051.47
Natural/fresh241812918.22*
Comfort182320220.13
Excitement6153403236.40*
Perfection253421281.72
Convenience15196129.40*
Freedom/equality15012.11

*p<0.05

One may wonder whether the results reported above is caused by comparing different number of issues in each year. To check the robustness of the results, four issues of Next in 1991 were randomly selected to compare with the four issues of Next in 1995. Same statistical tests on language use and cultural values between the two years were conducted. The shifts in language use and cultural values were still statistically significant. In other words, the different number of issues in the sample did not affect the results of the study.

Discussion

Convergent or Divergent?

The advertising industry in Hong Kong used different strategies in dealing with the political transition in Hong Kong. Local products were more likely to choose a convergent style that appeases to the new boss by showing a stronger sense of Chinese identity. They increased their usage of Chinese-only ads and reduced the usage of Western appeals in their ads. In contrast, foreign products were more likely to elect a divergent style. They tried to strengthen their foreign identity by increasing their usage of English-only ads and reducing the usage of mixed language ads. Instead of following the pro-China trend, they established their own way to differentiate themselves from the local products.

The fact that mixed usage of English and Chinese was the dominant form of language used in the ads reflects Hong Kong consumers’ language habit of mixing English in Chinese. Notably, most of the English parts in the mixed language ads were single words or short phrases, not paragraphs. They were either technical terms, commonly used English terms such as “telephone” and “fax,” or some fancy descriptions such as “The one and only one Shirley Kwan Live.” Essentially, all of them can be replaced by Chinese words but the copywriters chose not to. Hong Kong copywriters know that they could only include English in their copy to a very limited extent to maintain the stylish/imported look of the product. If using too many English words, Hong Kong consumers will have difficulty in understanding the ad. This mixed language use will continue to be the characteristic of Hong Kong ads but its importance may gradually diminish with the rise of “pure” language ads: Chinese only or English only.

Moving toward an Informative Style

The overall decline in the usage of instrumental values and terminal values to appeal to consumers in the ads are consistent with earlier studies on Hong Kong advertising. These studies show a trend of moving toward a more informative style than an emotional style. As the Hong Kong market is a mature one, ads that only sell images may not be sufficient to motivate consumers to buy the products. More incentives and benefits have to be conveyed in the ads. Informative ads are not the same as factual ads. Factual ads are ads that contain a lot of product information and details but do not give any promise or hope to consumers. They are usually primitive ads written by small advertisers. In this study, there were only six ads that do not contain any instrumental values or terminal values. The majority of the ads used one value or another to appeal to consumers. Instead of being very aggressive, promising more than one value in an ad as in 1991, copywriters now focus on one value at a time.

The growing presence of the economy value in the ads shows that the industry had been responsive to the economic recession reality in the year 1995. Hong Kong consumers, who were suffering from economic hardships, had become more pragmatic and look for additional values and benefits in a product such as price discount, gifts, and free services. Many ads contained promotional details such as entry forms for sweepstakes and prizes, and gave readers special offers such as gifts, free trial, and special rates.

Although there were signs in this study that ads for local products, by their increasing usage of pure Chinese language and reducing usage of Western appeals in their ads, have much less banana flavor than four years ago; one must be cautioned that this converging tendency only occurs in some local products only. Many still maintain the mixed language use characteristics. Traditional appeals did not gain much from the need to acculturate with the new boss in this political transition, except the appeal to save money. Among the Western appeals, creating excitement for consumers was still the most often used terminal value in the ads for both foreign and local products. It seems that most of the copywriters in Hong Kong responded to the transition by simply making ads more informative and offering materialistic benefit to provide a high economy value for consumers. Out of the 778 ads analyzed in this study, only one ad in this study was related to the 1997 issue with an HK$1997 banquet offer.

Conclusion

Advertisers and agencies need to find out what Hong Kong consumers want in this transitional period. They need to develop an appropriate advertising strategy for their products after 1997 when Hong Kong becomes a part of China. By then, Hong Kong will no longer be an independent market. Perhaps a creative style that has a strong Chinese character without sacrificing the quality of the ads is what they should strive for. To what extent the advertising in Hong Kong should converge with or influence the advertising in China will be a big challenge to advertisers interested in the Hong Kong and China market.

One may also wonder if there might be changes in the official language policy that could affect language use in future Hong Kong advertising. For the moment, the Hong Kong government still maintains a dual official language policy using both Chinese and English, but Chinese has become the language of instruction in most primary schools and secondary schools under the new education policy. In addition, the government has set up an official languages agency to promote the use of Chinese in business and education. A comparison of the languages used in successful advertising campaigns between Hong Kong and China in the coming years will reveal important consumer insights that can guide the future directions of advertisers.


About the Author:

Louisa Ha, Ph.D. is Research Director for The Gallup Organization. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Advertising Pre- Conference Session of the American Academy of Advertising Conference. Louisa_Ha@gallup.com

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.