Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I Really Thought About Red Star's Ad

Last week I wrote about a smog-filled advertisement for Red Star's erguotou, a type of Chinese liquor. This week Weijing Zhu wrote about the same marketing campaign and has inspired me to write some more on this topic.

In Zhu's post on The World of Chinese, my earlier post is referenced:
As Brian Glucroft writes in Isidor’s Fugue, one of the ads uses this imagery:
“Two people with bicycles on a narrow road passing by what appears to be a factory emitting copious amounts of pollution and contributing to the smog blanketing a nearby empty field.”
Glucroft tries to link images of pollution and driving people to drink, which he thought was the message. However...
Following "however" are some details and claims which are interesting but which do not rule out the possibility that the image of pollution was used in the hope it would drive people to drink. Whether or not Zhu believed this possibility had been ruled out, Zhu's characterization of what I wrote is not what I intended. Here is what I wrote:
An article on Red Star Wine's website (in Chinese) describes the marketing campaign. No, there is no mention of a strategy to use images of pollution to drive people to drink. Instead, Red Star Wine believes it can connect with younger people by evoking a desire for brotherhood and by tapping into the popularity of nostalgic themes in China through the use of Soviet-style imagery.

First of all, pointing out that an article on Red Star's website made no mention of the pollution-driving-people-to-drink possibility was an attempt at humor. I doubt that Red Star would want to publicize the idea it was deliberately trying to depress people so that they would buy its erguotou. Second of all, even if the humor is missed, what I wrote indicates that I am aware of a particular hypothetical explanation for the ad's design, but it does not indicate whether I ever thought this explanation was the correct one. For example, I might have mentioned the explanation because I thought it would reflect readers' first interpretation of the ad.

Later in Zhu's post, there is mention of an article on CNR which claims Red Star's ads have been successful. But Zhu either did not notice or chose not to mention that the article on CNR is the exact same article* which I referenced on Red Star's website and is found under a section titled "Company News". There is no author listed for the article, and it can be found on a large number of other websites as well. Although it smells like one, I am not positive the article is a Red Star press release. But there's at least good reason to ask if Red Star had a hand in its creation. Needless to say, I think some healthy skepticism of the article's claims of success is warranted.**

And even if the article is a press release, I would not necessarily be convinced its claims reflected Red Star's true vision for the ad. As I've already suggested, there could be reasons why Red Star would not want to be forthcoming about how it expects its marketing to be effective. Regardless, I believe the article's explanation of the ad's design is worth considering. I also see value in considering other possible reasons the ad might be effective, whether or not Red Star intended them.

* except for some sections of the text being bizarrely duplicated in Red Star's version

** Even if Red Star had no connection with the writing of the article, I'd have many questions about the evidence provided. That's another story though.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Traveling to a Far Away Yet Nearby City

Five years ago I traveled by bus about 280 km (175 miles) by bus from Shanghai to Yangzhou, Jiangsu province. I was told the trip would take 3.5 to 4 hours.

In afternoon traffic the trip actually lasted about 5 hours.

Three days ago I traveled on land 1318 km (819 miles) from Beijing to Shanghai. I was told the trip would take 4 hours and 55 minutes.

It did.

Such a feat is now possible with China's high-speed rail. Like many other times, I appreciated the convenience it provided. In this case it allowed me to avoid flying -- no small matter. Of the world's top 35 international airports, Beijing's and Shanghai's are the worst for on time departures.

The similarity of my trips to Yangzhou and from Beijing in terms of time despite the difference in terms of distance reminded me that the "closeness" of cities to each other depends on the factors being considered. For example, some aspects of Shanghai and Beijing are similar since they are two of the most economically developed and international cities in China. Yangzhou doesn't fit into those categories, but due to its proximity it has some closer cultural similarities, including cuisine, with Shanghai than does Beijing.

More on this theme later. For now, I'm just happy I didn't need to take a bus from Beijing.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Scenes from an Old Bridge in Tongcheng, Anhui Province

Today I was surprised to learn that someone I met was from the city of Tongcheng (桐城) in Anhui province. She seemed even more surprised to learn that I had visited there about 5 years ago. With the exception of a famous mountain, Anhui is not a common destination for foreigners. And Tongcheng is not one of Anhui's more prominent cities.

In the Tongcheng spirit, here are a few photos from an historic bridge:

river in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

view from old bridge in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

older home in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

person walking on an old bridge in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

As I looked through other photos from Tongcheng, many of which include scenes of older buildings with traditional Chinese architectural styles, I was reminded of someone recently saying he had never seen anything "old" in China that had not been "disney-fied". To highlight some of what he has missed, I will share more scenes from Tongcheng later.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Marketing in China: Drinking Red Star in a Smoggy Field

Imagine this scene: two people with bicycles on a narrow road passing by what appears to be a factory emitting copious amounts of pollution and contributing to the smog blanketing a nearby empty field.

Now consider the purposes for which you might use a black and white photo of that scene.

Did you think "that would be perfect to promote a Chinese brand of alcohol"? If you did, pat yourself on the back, because as I waited for a train to arrive at a subway station in Beijing I saw an advertisement for a brand of erguotou -- a type of liquor especially popular in Beijing.

advertisement for Red Star (Hongxing) erguotou

An article on Red Star Wine's website (in Chinese) describes the marketing campaign. No, there is no mention of a strategy to use images of pollution to drive people to drink. Instead, Red Star Wine believes it can connect with younger people by evoking a desire for brotherhood and by tapping into the popularity of nostalgic themes in China through the use of Soviet-style imagery.

Will it work? All I can say for sure is it motivated me, not exactly a main target consumer for Red Star, to buy a 150ml bottle (the smallest I saw) for 13 yuan (about US $2.10) at a local convenience store so I could give it a try.

On that note, here we go...

Not horrible. I definitely have had less positive erguotou experiences in the past. And to me the bottle looks trendier than most other similarly priced erguotous. I'm not sure I'll be tempted to buy it again in the future though. Maybe I should have tried it on ice.

I'm intrigued by the ad campaign and there are many questions it raises to me such as "Do the signs of pollution in the ad have any negative (or even positive) impact on its effectiveness?", "Could a similar strategy be effective for marketing erguotou in  the US, even if it may work for different reasons?", and "Why is the one man walking his bicycle?"

I'll save exploring those issues for another day, though, since I am now confirming something I earlier predicted to myself. Red Star has quite a kick.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Not-As-Green Road on Hong Kong Island

For a contrast to the photo that I shared of a "green road" on Hong Kong Island, here are two photos taken at 8 a.m. on a Monday last year while I stood on a pedestrian bridge over King's Road in Hong Kong Island's Quarry Bay.

The scenes are obviously much more urban than the earlier scene. However, hiking trails through lush greenery in the large Tai Tam Country park are only a few minutes walk away. On the side, even closer is one of my favorite places for a simple but tasty dish of Hong Kong style roasted duck and rice. Even if these two photos were mixed up with all of my other photos of urban scenes in China, clues such as the trams and minibuses would tell me right away that I was looking at Hong Kong. More urban scenes with Hong Kong trams (and the variety of advertisements they display) can be found in earlier posts here and here.

Although at the moment I am thinking about parks, restaurants, and trams in Hong Kong, I am still in Beijing and will remain here a little longer. A return to Beijing scenes and other topics is on the way.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Green Road on Hong Kong Island

tree lined road in Hong Kong

I am sharing the above photo for two reasons.

One, today Hong Kong was on my mind. It has been almost a year since I was last there, and it might not be too much longer before I stop by again.

Two, it provides a contrast to the many photos of Hong Kong which capture the density of its population and buildings. Not long before taking the photo last year, I was surrounded by a rather urban scene on the northern side of Hong Kong Island. But a friend and I decided to take a walk and we ended up in higher and greener regions of the island. When we were on the above road we had no exact plan for where we were going next.

I will follow up on the Hong Kong green theme at some point in the future. But if you're curious as to where my friend and I ended up after a long walk, see the post here for the scene we enjoyed and to see the friendly family we met.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Beijing Day in a Mask

Today I inhaled some of the cleanest air I have ever breathed in Beijing. No, the Olympics did not return to China. There was another reason.

Shortly after reading the article "1,600 Die Prematurely in Hong Kong As Smog Spikes", I noticed that the air quality for Beijing today was being described as "very unhealthy". I then felt sufficiently motivated to do something I had never done before: wear a face mask due to smog.

Fortunately, I did not need to make use of the "Filtering Respirator for Fire Self-Rescue" in my room, because the other day I picked up some 3M KN90 masks. In general, KN90 masks do not filter as much as the highly recommended N95 masks, but that was the best 3M mask available at 7-Eleven -- a convenient stop for where I am staying. I figured the difference between no mask and a 90% efficient mask was far greater than the difference between a 90% efficient mask and a 95% efficient mask.

So I donned my mask and went outside. I don't have any photos to share, but the air looked only a shade better than it did when I visited Tiananmen Square last month -- not very good. I had to fiddle with the mask to make sure it was properly sealed, but it was straightforward to wear. I must say, though, that I felt rather self-conscious. Eventually that feeling seemed to fade a little, and I didn't notice any more stares than usual.

Although people in Beijing may not be fazed by seeing someone wearing a mask, after passing hundreds and hundreds of people today I did not see another person wearing one. I've seen a very small minority of people wearing masks on other days, though, especially when the readings are in the "hazardous" category.

One of the first things I noticed about the mask was the heat it trapped around my mouth and nose. The weather was slightly cool today, so it didn't pose much of a nuisance. But I could imagine there'd be a bit of discomfort on hotter days. On the plus side, it might help keep your face warm during the winter.

The other thing I noticed was that some smells (particularly those I did not wish to smell) seemed to be more noticeable while wearing the mask. I would have thought the opposite would occur since the mask covers the nose. Perhaps the air pocket under the mask helps funnel up into the nose any chemicals which enter.

Although the mask provided a barrier to completely effortless breathing, the effect did not feel bothersome to me. This can be more of an issue with masks that filter a higher percentage of particles.

Maybe the biggest negative was that the mask was held in place by elastic straps which went around the ears. It was comfortable at first, but after several hours my ears felt sore.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about the experience. If I were to stay in Beijing long term, I'd consider investing in a higher quality mask that does not anchor itself on the ears and does not make me look I just walked out of a hospital. Whatever the case, at least I breathed some cleaner air today.

A Bit of Cosmo in Beijing

About a month ago in Beijing, I noticed an advertisement for a magazine.

man on motorbike riding by a billboard advertisement for Cosmopolitan magazine

As I stood there, I considered Cosmopolitan's presence in China. I can't remember everything that went through my mind, but I'm pretty sure it would have been different if I had seen this:

Nice selection. I'm guessing you can pick up a copy of Cosmopolitan there.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The "Benefits" of Air Pollution in China

In a Bloomberg article about a new law in China requiring adult children to visit their parents, Adam Minter provided a picture of the challenges China faces in caring for its growing elderly population:
In 2012, Zhu Yong, deputy director of the Chinese government’s National Committee on Aging, told a Beijing conference on pension reform that in 2013 the number of Chinese over age 60 would exceed 200 million; it would peak in 2050 at 483 million.

In China’s traditional agrarian culture, those aging relatives would live with, and be supported by, their children. But the country’s modernizing economy means children are moving far from their parents to work. Moreover, thanks in large part to population-control policies, Zhu estimates that China’s workforce will shrink to 713 million by 2050, down 24.2 percent from 2011, leaving fewer children to support aging parents. This demographic crunch is creating something relatively new in China: empty-nesters.
And in the The New York Times Edward Wong reported on research indicating that air pollution is shortening people's lives in China:
Southern Chinese on average have lived at least five years longer than their northern counterparts in recent decades because of the destructive health effects of pollution from the widespread use of coal in the north, according to a study released Monday by a prominent American science journal...

The results provide a new assessment of the enormous cost of China’s environmental degradation, which in the north is partly a result of the emissions of deadly pollutants from coal-driven energy generation. The researchers project that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River will lose 2.5 billion years of life expectancy because of outdoor air pollution...

“This adds to the growing mountain of evidence of the heavy cost of China’s pollution,” said Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Chinese environmental policies. “Other studies have shown significant near-term harms, in the form of illness, lost work days and even risks to children beginning in utero. This study suggests that the long-term harms of coal pollution might be worse than we thought.”
Each of these articles raises plenty of issues and questions on its own. But together they raise a particular set of questions. Is pollution slowing down the rate at which China's population ages? If so, will pollution reduce the severity of future challenges China faces in caring for its older citizens?

The possibility of something detrimental to public health having a potential benefit of sorts is reminiscent of research indicating that there could be a financial benefit to not preventing smoking or obesity. Due to people living longer and facing other health issues, preventing smoking or obesity could increase the overall amount of money spent on health care. For examples of this research, see articles in the The New England Journal of Medicine here and PLOS Medicine here (though also worth pointing out that increased health care costs due to people not smoking may be offset by gains in productivity).

Of course, just because something has a benefit doesn't mean it is "good". It can depend on one's perspective. As the authors of the article in the The New England Journal of Medicine noted:
... we believe that in formulating public health policy, whether or not smokers impose a net financial burden ought to be of very limited importance. Public health policy is concerned with health. Smoking is a major health hazard, so the objective of a policy on smoking should be simple and clear: smoking should be discouraged.
In a similar sense, I don't expect China to encourage the production of air pollution. But for someone making cold calculations, air pollution may have a "silver lining" if it slows down the rate at which China's population ages.

I doubt most people in China would see it that way, though. Growing old without support may not be part of the "Chinese Dream", but neither is dying from pollution.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Chinese Twists to American Fast Foods

One of the joys for me of living in China is trying its broad variety of local culinary delights. Since I like much of the food in China, I find it curious when I find myself less accepting of localized American food products, which seems to mostly happen with what could be classified as junk food.

For example, although I have never tried the yogurt-cucumber or tomato-beef flavored Lay's potato chips I saw advertised in Beijing, I did once try Lay's blueberry-flavored potato chips. I stress "once". They weren't really that bad, but I'm not motivated to choose them again. I'll stick with barbecue-flavored potato chips. Or if I eat Chicken McNuggets at McDonald's in China I'll typically choose the garlic-chili sauce. It's OK, but I am almost embarrassed to admit how happy I was when I once discovered a McDonald's in Changsha with some American-style barbecue sauce. It appeared to be a leftover from days long past, but I figured the sauce probably had a rather long shelf life.

To show this isn't just about barbecue sauce, in another case one day late last year at a supermarket in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, the localized version of an American cookie caught my attention.

boxes of peach-grape flavored Oreos

It had the typical two chocolate wafers, but instead of white cream the filling was peach and grape flavored. I was curious, so I bought a box and tried one cookie. Again, I stress "one" — all I needed to realize that peach-grape Oreos were not my thing. Other Oreo flavors and versions of the cookie can be found in China as well. I have not tried them all, but someone else' review of them can be found here.

Whether it is potato chips, chicken nugget sauces, or cookies, I suspect some of these localized products would have a better chance of appealing to me if I didn't associate them with specific food items I have enjoyed long before (an intriguing issue to me). I can think of exceptions, though. For example, I prefer McDonad's taro pie, available in Hawaii as well, over its apple pie.

And no barbecue sauce is needed.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Two Views from the Yingtian Pagoda in Shaoxing

One day in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, late last year I visited the Yingtian Pagoda.

Yingtian Pagoda in Shaoxing

And after climbing up the stairs to its highest level, I spent some time pondering Shaoxing.

view with tall buildings from Yingtian Pagoda

view from Yingtian Pagoda of an urban area with mountains in the background

I share these scenes now in part because Shaoxing is where I tried a localized version of an American cookie familiar to many -- the topic for an upcoming post. I'll share one small teaser: I enjoyed the above views much more than the cookie.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Artichoke Juice in Vietnam

Yesterday's post about the localized flavors of Lay's potato chips in China reminded me of a potatory experience I had in Vietnam a few months ago. While I perused an upscale supermarket in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the drinks for sale caught my attention.

bottles of Vietnamese Vfresh artichoke juice

I'm a fan of artichokes, but I had never considered seeking out artichoke juice. Of course, I bought a bottle. It tasted just like what you'd expect artichoke juice to taste like -- artichokes -- and had the viscosity of apple juice. Since I like a variety of vegetable juices and herbal drinks, I could imagine it might grow on me, even though I had mixed feelings about it during my first experience.

A couple of regions in Vietnam are known for growing artichokes, although some artichoke farmers have recently switched to growing flowers instead. And not only are artichokes used for tea, but they are also included in some local Vietnamese dishes. Unfortunately, I never came across any of them, so see here for someone else's enthusiastic report of eating artichokes in Dalat, Vietnam.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Potato Chip Flavors in China

When I saw the above advertisement for Lay's potato chips at a subway station in Beijing, I recalled some of my personal experiences in China trying the local flavors of items common in the U.S., whether Oreos or toothpaste. I will say more about at least one of those experiences later.

For more about Lay's attempts in China to find the perfect flavors, whether they might be cola-chicken or blueberry, see an article by Abe Sauer on Brandchannel here.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Walking on Water in Beijing

Just a scene I enjoyed outside of Seasons Place, a high end shopping mall in Beijing:

woman and child in a fountain
I didn't see any signs saying you couldn't do this. I was tempted to wade in myself.