An advertisement in Nanjing has recently drawn wide attention in China for its bad taste. On a large billboard is an advertisement for a home-furnishing mall, and in a prominent place are huge Chinese characters which say "What will you think of after you are well fed and well dressed?" followed by "Guess..." in smaller characters. The answer is given in even smaller characters-"It is home furnishing."
All this looks absolutely innocent and commonplace to people unfamiliar with Chinese culture. But for the majority of Chinese people, the advertisement has an apparent sexual implication, because there is a well-known old Chinese saying: "After being well fed and clothed, one thinks of sexual pleasure." Apparently, the "sexual pleasure" that has not appeared on the billboard is the advertisement's hook.
The advertisement has created an uproar in the Chinese media. Some criticized the advertisement, saying it is immoral. And some others think that whether the advertisement is negative or positive depends on how the audience perceives it. The focus of the debate is: Should the design of an advertisement be restrained by moral concerns? To what degree should it be censored? And who will do so?
Tougher Censorship of Ads
Dong Zui (a writer for Worker's Daily): It is really hard to make a judgment on this advertisement, which apparently contains nothing obscene or against social moral codes as specified in the Law of Advertising. "To see whether an advertisement is unacceptable, we mainly look at whether it contains obvious words related to obscene deeds or thoughts," explained a local industrial and commercial administration spokesperson.
However, this doesn't alter the advertisement's "immoral" nature. Market economy should be both a "legal economy" and a "moral economy." The so-called "moral economy" means that the product or service should not stimulate people's unsavory lusts. For instance, you should neither sell cigarettes and liquor to children, nor introduce pornographic books or videos to them. It is the same for selling condoms by giving public demonstrations, which may arouse a lascivious imagination, no matter how implicitly it is conducted. Given this, such acts, though not illegal, are "immoral," or go against social moral codes.
That which is "immoral" brings out the most ugly things in human hearts. The advertisement in Nanjing, at least, displays what its designer is "thinking of after being well fed and clothed."
Prof. Bao Zhongwen (former dean of the Chinese Department of Nanjing University): How can an advertisement in such bad taste be put up on the street? Obviously, the ad designer simply wants to get more public attention by playing with that old saying. In this sense, the ad is flirtatious and misleading. Such an unsavory advertisement should be removed immediately.
He Yuan (a Nanjing citizen): Such an advertisement is not only in bad taste; it shows the advertiser's poor cultivation and character. I don't think advertisements like this will draw much attention or generate huge economic returns.
When designing advertisements, many advertisers are trying to do all they can to create an infinite space for unsavory imagination, in a bid to draw attention. But that has proved to be stupid. If they cannot come up with any beautiful and powerful advertising words, it will be better for them to use simple and straightforward language.
Liu Yibin (a writer for China Youth Daily): The failure of the local industrial and commercial administration to prevent the emergence of such a distasteful advertisement in Nanjing reveals obvious problems with management over advertising.
Advertising should be seen as a kind of mass media. A large-sized billboard placed on the center of a big city will reach as far and create as big an impact as a newspaper with a circulation of tens of thousands of copies. One feature of advertising is that it is exposed to all without discrimination. In the case of television and newspapers, parents may intervene whenever they feel there is content unsuitable for their children.
Almost every commercial advertisement is conveying certain ideological and cultural information, including value or moral orientation and an outlook on life. Yet the Law of Advertising, the legal basis for the examination of advertisements, has failed to provide relevant stipulations on ideological censorship. As a result, we have a large amount of advertisements that either excessively advocate the pursuit of money and fun, or debase women. These have become a worrying source of negative influence in our society.
I understand that it is difficult to censor the ideological content of advertisements because of the ambiguity over what is right and what is wrong. The Law of Advertising stipulates that there should not be any obvious words related to pornography or unsavory deeds or thoughts, there should not be any content exaggerating the advertisers and debasing others. But that is far from enough to cover every problem.
In a society with a complete and sound operational mechanism, there should be a department to intervene whenever the spread of certain ideological content creates a negative impact on society. The industrial and commercial administration, which is in charge of censoring advertisements, should shoulder such social responsibility.
So it seems that the industrial and commercial administration really needs to employ some sociologists, linguists, psychologists and other professionals. The government should also authorize the industrial and commercial administration to form an experts' committee, which will be specifically in charge of censoring the ideological content of advertisements.
Too Much Ado About an Ad
Han Che (deputy editor-in-chief of Shandong Business News): As we all know, the function of the industrial and commercial administration is to manage the market. But some people are saying that the administration should also be responsible for censoring people's thoughts.
Those adherent to conventional moral principles believe that the advertisement in Nanjing has ideological problems because it plays with the ancient saying that "one thinks of sexual pleasure after being well fed and well dressed," and such words can be seen on a big billboard on the main avenue! Some residents in Nanjing feel that brings shame on the city, some linguists believe it is pornographically misleading, and some critics are making a big fuss over it.
Do we only think of sexual pleasure if we are well fed and clothed? I think there are actually numerous options, which of course include "home furnishings." The advertisement has challenged our traditional concept and set up a small trap for people thinking linearly, by designing an unexpected answer. This is really very creative. In terms of the language itself, there is not a single word that is unsavory or distasteful. So how could it bring shame on the city or mislead people pornographically?
As some insightful people pointed out: Although it looks innocent, it hides a distasteful ideology. In Liu Yibin's article, he argued that the fact that such an advertisement was allowed to exist shows "obvious problems with the country's management over advertising." And he believed the cause is that "the Law of Advertising, the legal basis of censoring advertisements, has failed to provide relevant stipulations on ideology censoring." Given this, he suggested that the government should authorize the industrial and commercial administration to censor the ideological content of advertisements.
I think such a deduction is problematic. It is necessary to conduct necessary censoring of the content of advertisements. For instance, some obviously vulgar, insulting and prejudicial language and pictures should not be allowed, which I think must be stipulated by the Law of Advertising. But if the industrial and commercial administration is authorized to inquire into the ideological implication behind the language of each advertisement, who can guarantee that the related officials will not abuse their power? Who can guarantee that such power will not lead to more corruption? And who knows whether a trend to criminalize people, solely based on what they have written and said, will emerge in the advertising sector?
If the industrial and commercial administration is given the power of censoring people's ideology, should other departments, which are just as important, be accorded the same power? And should everyone conduct self-examination in order to maintain the purity of society's ideology?
We are now living in a much more liberalized society, with its trademarks of ideological emancipation, rule by law and a tolerance for diversified personalities. Therefore, the management of society should be conducted within the legal framework, without randomly and rudely interfering in the rights of the general public. When someone says, "being well fed and well dressed," people will believe he or she is hinting at "sexual pleasure," and then will conclude that he or she has ideological problems. Frankly, I believe such is the logic of feudal autarchy.
Gao Lixue (a writer for China Youth Daily): Maybe I am a little bit sensitive to the word of ideology. But I really cannot understand how the industrial and commercial administration can interfere in people's thoughts. Is the industrial and commercial administration "the office of raising morals of business people?" If not, how can it interfere in language used by advertisers? Of course, everybody in China knows what comes next "after being well-fed and clothed." Even without linguists' reminding, I can see the "pornographic tendency" hidden behind the lines. But tendency is just a tendency. It doesn't justify the industrial and commercial administration interfering in what people think, as long as they don't violate the Law of Advertising.
I am not saying that the advertiser is innocent. But this is an embarrassing situation that we have to live with, as long as we believe in and want to safeguard legal justice. When a table tennis player makes a touch ball, the referee can do nothing because the player doesn't break the rules. Rules and laws are, and can only be, inflexible. A law with great flexibility cannot be regarded as law.
Ye Zhenhua (head of the advertising company that designed the controversial ad): The ad is the result of a sudden five-minute inspiration. It takes advantage of people's familiarity with the ancient saying of "after being well fed and well dressed, one thinks of sexual pleasure." Our primary goal is to catch the eye of the audience and impress them. In addition, this ad has been approved by the related departments and is absolutely legal. I don't think I am using any loopholes, either. In modern times, the ancient saying should be interpreted in more innovative ways. After being well fed and clothed, I think we have a lot more to think about than sex. For instance, we can buy houses or go traveling. Clothing, food, housing and transportation are the four intertwining essential needs of human life. So it is quite logical for us to say, "after being well fed and clothed, one thinks of furnishing houses."
An official from Nanjing Administration for Industry and Commerce: We have approved this billboard. When we decide whether an advertisement is acceptable or not, we mainly see whether there is any obvious word related to pornography and unsavory deeds and thoughts, or any word that tries to exaggerate the advertiser and debase competitors. We cannot do anything about this kind of "touch ball."
Related stipulations of the PRC Law of Advertising:
Article 3: Advertisements should be truthful and conform to the law and the requirements for promoting socialist and ethical progress.
Article 7: Contents of advertisements should be healthy, help improve the quality of commodities and services, protect consumers' rights, observe social, moral and professional ethic codes, and safeguard the nation's dignity and interests. Advertisements should not affect public order or run against prevailing social customs; and they should not contain pornographic, superstitious, horrifying, violent or disgusting content.
Article 32: Outdoor advertisements that may affect social life or work, and tarnish the image of the city, should not be permitted.
(Beijing Review, Issue No. 40)