Aching For the '80s

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Pichi Chuang / Reuters

Forward motion Ai Weiwei's Forever Bicycles art installation addresses the rapid pace of social change in China

One evening late last year, Yong Yue-peng, a 35-year-old pharmaceutical salesman in Shanghai, flicked on his laptop and went to the site Youku.com, China's version of YouTube. There, he clicked on a made-for-the-Web film that had generated some buzz in Internet chat rooms and the Chinese press. The film — called Old Boys — was about two middle-aged men, friends who had been aspiring musicians when they were young and now had rather humdrum careers. They decide to enter an American Idol — like contest, performing a tribute to one of their musical heroes from the 1980s: Michael Jackson. Yong was transfixed. "Every detail in the film was accurate — the music, the dress, the way things looked in those days," he says. "By the end of it, I was very emotional, almost in tears." He wasn't alone. According to Youku, some 35 million people watched the 43-minute film on its website.

Old Boys wasn't just a one-off creation by a couple of unknown filmmakers that miraculously became popular. It was one of 10 short Web films to appear on Youku, sponsored by one very big Western company that delighted in seeing the films go viral online: Chevrolet, General Motors' iconic American car brand.

The film's extraordinary success is telling evidence of a new commercial paradox: China in 2011 has a mere three decades of experience with modern capitalism; its breakneck economic growth — and the skyscrapers, bullet-train tracks and factories it has produced — has rapidly transformed its urban landscape. In this frenetic era, advertisers are discovering that China's rising consumers don't always fit the traditional new-money mold. While flashy cars and luxury brands certainly play a part in the lives of China's nouveaux riches, conjuring up a simpler time, a past that wasn't actually that long ago, can win the attention of a lot of young aspiring Chinese consumers. In 21st century China, nostalgia is in.

The allure of the not-so-distant past is particularly powerful for China's young middle class, around 200 million people, most of them city dwellers — a generation that came of age as the country's historic transition to a market economy was just taking hold. In contrast to their parents, they have known little hardship (by Chinese standards, anyway), and their future not only seems bright; it is theirs to make. They are, says Edward Bell, group-planning director for Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai, "the pioneers of China's transition. They are helping create the growth that defines today's China, and they are benefiting from it. They are where the money is."

Figuring out what makes them tick — what pushes their buttons in an advertising sense — is a top priority for any company hankering for a piece of China's huge, increasingly affluent consumer class.

Not surprisingly, China's advertising market is surging. The market has grown by more than 20% a year for the past five years, to $54 billion last year, according to ResearchInChina, a Beijing-based market-research firm. As in the U.S., the Internet is China's fastest-growing ad market. Online ad spending grew by more than 80% last year and accounts for roughly 10% of China's overall ad spending, more than twice its share in 2009. Not only are global ad agencies like New York City's Omnicom and Dublin's WPP expanding rapidly in China. Smaller homegrown agencies like Shanghai-based Rayken are also entering the game, picking off major global accounts from their Western counterparts.

The Fine Line
On Madison Avenue, nostalgia — taking consumers to a place they "ache to go again," as Mad Men's Don Draper would say — has long been standard fare for Western advertisers. In China, figuring out how to harness the persuasive power of nostalgia is a far more recent phenomenon — and a much trickier one to navigate. For the first 30 years of Communist Party rule, China was an impoverished country where market economics had little or no place. From 1966 to '76, much of the country was consumed by the chaotic Cultural Revolution, when millions of "bourgeois" Chinese were persecuted and sent off to rural provinces to work as farmers.

For some, evoking those memories can be painful and political. Consider, for instance, the western city of Chongqing, where the powerful party leader Bo Xilai is publicly trumpeting a patriotic "Red campaign," gathering thousands of people a few times a week in city parks to sing Mao-era songs. The campaign has struck a chord with some older residents, but it has also turned off many others. Even some of Bo's colleagues in the Communist Party are said to be uneasy with evoking that turbulent era.

Foreign and local companies with nostalgia-infused campaigns have to walk a fine line. But deftly used — striking personal rather than political themes — nostalgia can offer as powerful a message in Chinese ad campaigns as it has in the West.

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