Sex in Advertising

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Lessons about Korean ads from a Hong Kong Teenager

How cool is it that a teenage girl in any country makes a video starting like this:

Now, I’ve been here [in Hong Kong] for about…3 and a half years…and I think that if you look at common stereotypes, and you look at the way women are portrayed in the media, there are basically 3 main categories of role models for young girls to look up to. I call them: the sex-object, the virgin baby-machine, and the [bitchy] career woman. And the thing is, I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t matter which category a woman finds herself falling into…cause they all suck! And no matter what she chooses, she just can’t win!

Without deriving from her arguments, many commenters at Sociological Images note that those categories are equally valid in many other developed countries. But as pointed out by Emma, some of the things she mentions are at least more pronounced in the Northeast-Asian region:

…there are a lot of similarities between gender dynamics in HK and many other places in the world, but I do feel the dictate of virtue/virginity is especially strong here, along with a notion of ‘cuteness’ which I do not really recognize from Europe. I would say that the ‘sex babe’ model is not really something you see played out that much in daily life – it’s mostly confined to celebrity culture…

…I also know women from Japan and Korea, who tell me it is still very difficult for many women to balance between having a career and being ‘the good wife’, meaning a modest and submissive mother who mainly spends her energy on the family and the home-sphere.

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Korean Sociological Image #52: Are Celebrities Removing the Stigma of Lingerie Modelling?

After writing about double-standards in the objectification of men’s and women’s bodies in the Korean media last month, this month I was looking forward to wrapping that up. Finally, I thought, I’d be able to remove the prominent “Abs vs. Breasts” folder on my Firefox toolbar.

Alas, I’ve decided some more context is needed first. Which by coincidence, also allows me to get rid of the even more embarrassing “Lingerie” folder in the process.

But while the topic sounds facetious perhaps, having overwhelmingly Caucasian models in lingerie advertisements has definite effects on how Koreans perceive both Caucasians’ and their own bodies and sexuality. If you consider what Michael Hurt wrote in his blog Scribblings of the Metropolitician back in 2005 for instance:

…One thing that I also notice is that in underwear and other commercials that require people to be scantily-clad, only white people seem to be plastered up on walls in the near-buff. Now, it may be the sense that Korean folks – especially women – would be considered too reserved and above that sort of thing (what I call the “cult of Confucian domesticity”). Maybe that’s linked to the stereotyped expectation that white people always be running around all nasty and hanging out already, as is their “way.” Another possibility has to do with the reaction I hear from Korean people when I mention this, which is that white people just “look better” with less clothes, since Koreans have “short leg” syndrome and gams that look like “radishes.” The men are more “manly” and just look more “natural” with their shirts off…

Then I’m sure you’ll appreciate that while that artificial dichotomy between “naturally” nude, more sexual Caucasians (and by extension, all Westerners) and more modest, virginal, pure Koreans is neither new, solely confined to Korea, nor wholly a construct of the Korean media, at the very least this odd feature of Korean lingerie advertisements certainly helps sustain it. And that dichotomy has largely negative effects on all Westerners here, especially women.

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Korean Sociological Image #51: Male Objectification & Double Standards

 

What would be your reaction if this flashed on your TV screen?

Mine was thinking that abs aren’t exactly the best analogy for airbags. But my mistake: they’re not supposed to be. Rather, Hyundai needed something to signify the number of airbags as the voiceover went through various specs of the car.

Which to be fair, is much clearer in the full commercial.

How about if a proper airbag analogy had been used instead, like BMW did back in 2006?

( Source )

If you found that objectification distasteful however, then consider the following from Renault/Samsung in 2008 below also:

Which uses the same analogy, but is clearly quite a contrast to BMW’s puerile effort. Nevertheless, some commenters on this earlier post did still have some issues with it, whereas nobody on this blog at least has had any with all of the men’s 6-packs that suddenly started appearing in Korean commercials from last year.

But I’m sure you’re already well-aware of that double-standard, so the purpose of this post is not just to draw your attention to it. Nor is it to simply pass on that juxtaposition of advertisements, however interesting. In combination with a recent development in the Korean media though, what that juxtaposition did serve to do was make me realize both the rapid mainstreaming and dogmatic nature of that double-standard here, and which is a combination that I think is pretty unique to Korea too.

Let me explain.

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“Want to Sleep With a Foreign Woman?”

 

A provocative article title from Yahoo! Korea yesterday, yes?

Alas, actually it’s only about one lawmaker’s concern over the growing number of “lewd” internet advertisements these days, among which presumably that’s a common slogan. But that does underlie some of the street harassment and groping that many foreign women experience here, so it’s interesting in its own right.

As is the irony and hypocrisy of Yahoo! Korea posting such an article in the first place too. For Korean portal sites are virtually like The Sun newspaper in their content, tone, and adherence to journalistic ethics, like I said of them last year:

Unlike their English-language counterparts, you have roughly a 50% chance of opening Naver, Daum, Nate, Yahoo!Korea, and kr.msn.com to be greeted with headlines and thumbnail pictures about sex scandals, accidental exposures (no-chool;노출) of female celebrities, and/or crazed nude Westerners.

And indeed, scroll to the bottom of Yahoo! Korea as I type this, and just today’s “image galleries” below include lingerie photoshoots and “beautiful Russian news anchors”, let alone the links on the rest of the site.

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Presumed Causes of Racism Against Interracial Couples in Korea


( Sources – left: GR X Hermark; right )

Over at a recent post on Noona Blog: Seoul, an excellent blog written by a Swedish woman in a relationship with a Korean man, currently there’s several interesting comments about the sources of racism often directed against Korean female – Caucasian male (KF-CM) couples in Korea.

Many of which were written by Jake of Asian Male Revolutions, who has the admirable and very necessary goal of challenging the racist and emasculating images of Asian men in the US media through that website.

But in the process of – in my view – very much contriving to paint racism against KF-CM couples in Korea in those terms, as well as global racial power relations, I found he made many extremely sexist assumptions about Korean women, which I’d like to challenge. As technical issues prevent me from doing so at Noona Blog directly however,* then – assuming that you’ve already read his comments – I’ll post my original response here instead:

Dear Jake,

it’s difficult not to sound offensive when critiquing someone’s opinions so harshly. But still, however legitimate your concerns about representations of Asian men in the US media are, you are completely mistaken in assuming that these are also perpetuated by the Korean media, in a culturally imperialist sense.

Indeed, it is simply apologist to ascribe anything but the most minimal of roles to that in attempting to understand racism against KF-CM couples in Korea. Much more seriously though, in so doing you also rely heavily on some extremely patronizing and sexist assumptions about Korean women, let alone racist ones against Caucasian men. Let me explain.

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Korean Photoshop Disaster #6: I like it hot, strong, and black!

( Source )

Do men pay more attention to men’s chests than women?

As a gym addict 10-15 years ago, I read somewhere in a newspaper that they do. And with my self-confidence back then wholly tied to how much I buffed up, it certainly matched my own experience.

Unfortunately for the sake of objectivity though, it’s been difficult not to remember that every time I’ve seen a topless man ever since. One look at Changmim of 2AM half-naked and holding his crotch in a coffee ad then, and all I could think about was the large, firm package that used to be the weekend edition of the New Zealand Herald.

Naturally enough, most commenters at allkpop and Omona! They Didn’t focused on the one that Changmin was allegedly holding in his left hand instead, and I’m going to take a wild guess that most of those were heterosexual women. Perhaps that explains why so few noticed the appalling photoshop job on his chest?^^

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Korean Sociological Image #48: The Male Gaze

( Source: L-C-R. Reproduced with permission )

Like photographer L-C-R says, this 2008 Gundam advertisement is a prime example of a woman being portrayed as a child and/or sex object, of which she saw entirely too much of while she was in Korea.

You may be very surprised then, when you learn whom it was actually aimed at.

But first, please consider what is it exactly that so demeans drama actress Min Seo-hyeon (민서현) in it? I identify 4 or 5 things myself, which I outline in descending order of importance below:

  1. her childlike expression, combined with putting her fingers in her mouth
  2. the canting of her head
  3. her surprisingly awkward stance
  4. her passivity as she awaits the masculine-looking robot to make the next move

And after discussing those, albeit briefly because I’ve already done so in great depth in this similar post about soju advertisements, I’ll finally look at the ad in the context of the campaign as a whole. But feel free to disagree with any of those and/or suggest others, and in that vein I highly recommend asking your Korean partners, colleagues or friends their own opinions also. As if the experience of asking my wife and her friends earlier is anything to go by, then they are very likely to disagree with the first. Or rather, that she’s being portrayed childishly at all, and – jumping ahead – not even in the following commercials either:

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Korean Sociological Image #47: East End Girls, meet West End Boys

Yes, it had to happen eventually! A big round of applause to Nextour (넥스투어) for producing the very first Korean commercial to feature a Korean woman literally dreaming of having a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a Western man, and with no suggestion that there will be anything but happiness once she succeeds.

New readers shaking your heads in disbelief however, then by all means prove me wrong by finding earlier examples. But before engaging on what I think will ultimately be a long and fruitless search, please consider reading other posts in the “interracial relationships” category, especially here, here, here, here, here, and here. And please also ponder the following quote from Hyun-Mee Kim in her chapter “Feminization of the 2002 World Cup and Women’s Fandom” in Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea, ed. by Jung-Hwa Oh, 2005, pp. 228-243 below on the then unprecedented public attention by Korean women on the bodies of the Korean players in the summer, and which gives a big clue as to why it has taken 8 years(!) for such an essentially innocuous commercial to emerge:

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Korean Sociological Image #44: Westerners, Nipples, and the Presentation of Sexuality in the Korean Media


( Source: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7. Cropped slightly)

It’s amazing what pops up in Korean newspapers these days.

Yes, however difficult it may be for overseas readers to believe, that is the actually the first nipple my Korean wife, friends, and I have ever seen in a Korean advertisement. Moreover, it’s probably no coincidence that it belongs to a Caucasian model too, and one that looks like she’s about to get involved in a ménage à trois at that.

Focusing on the nipple first though (as one does), let me provide some context: with the important exception of ubiquitous single-sex bathhouses, Koreans are generally more conservative than Anglophones when it comes to public nudity. Topless males are extremely rare away from beaches, swimming pools, and concert stages for instance, and topless females unheard of, let alone full nudists of either sex (recall also that just 5-10 years ago, women even covered their swimsuits with t-shirts too). In addition, while female celebrities have been showing a lot of cleavage in recent years, this trend has yet to be adopted by ordinary women, whom can expect just as much unwanted attention if they accidentally leave home bra-less.

However, breast-feeding is generally fine if done discreetly, and indeed one of the first things I noticed in my first time in a Korean supermarket 10 years ago was a brand of milk (or soy milk) that prominently featured a large breast and a suckling baby on its packaging. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name to find an image, but I do also recall that it was by no means hidden away in any sense.

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Korean Sociological Image #43: ESL Students on Top?

( Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling. Reproduced with permission )

A recent advertisement for the Pagoda chain of language institutes noticed by Matt of Gusts of Popular Feeling, who notes that the attraction “is clearly for women to get close to, to have one on one communication with, and to have almost direct contact with the male foreign teacher.”

In any other context this would be unremarkable, but unfortunately the Korean media is notorious for presenting foreign male – Korean female relationships either negatively or not at all (although this is slowly improving). So this advertisement really stands out for the rare, quite literal closeness of the models in it, albeit not necessarily in a romantic sense.

In contrast, Japanese language institutes have already been advertising this way for a long time, as noted by Keiron Bailey in his 2006 journal article Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland: ideology, akogare, and gender alterity in English conversation school advertising in Japan. Two examples from that, both from 2002:

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