The World: Ban exposes China's ad censorship anomalies

Despite gaining the usual approval, the Pond's ad lasted only a week on Chinese TV screens. Ella Fitzsimmons investigates.

To Western eyes, Unilever's Ogilvy-created TV commercial for Pond's didn't come across as offensive. Tastefully photographed, it featured a young and fully clothed actress extolling the virtues of the skincare brand.

Yet the ad was pulled within a week, as the featured actress, Tang Wei, was banned from all mainland Chinese media outlets. Is this a sign that advertising censorship in China is tightening?

Advertising in China is a huge business, with adspend figures that have jumped from $4.7 billion to $14.2 billion in seven years. Ads have to go through several stages of approval and, as representatives from Ogilvy insisted during the height of the Tang Wei furore, the agency had made sure that all hoops had been jumped through.

For an ad to be approved in China, agencies keep an open dialogue with the China Advertising Association. Purportedly a self-regulating body, the CAA can be more accurately described as a quasi-governmental consultative unit set up by the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, which retains the power to accept or decline ads. The CAA is known to have a pretty firm grasp of what the SAIC is likely to crack down on.

Another stage of approval exists at the level of TV stations: CCTV, the ironically named Chinese state TV channel, has right of approval or rejection of ads. While approval at regional level does not necessarily mean national CCTV approval, or vice versa, once it has been granted, it's not commonly withdrawn.

Unilever's attempt to establish Pond's as a high-end brand on the Chinese market saw a deal brokered with Tang Wei, one of the stars of Lust, Caution, as the focal point. Released last year, Ang Lee's film is a steamy saga of spies, students and sex in 30s Shanghai.

Lust, Caution was heavily edited by Sarft, the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and TV, when shown in Chinese cinemas, but was widely available on DVD. As Lust, Caution is Tang's only film to date, her image is closely aligned with that of her character.

The Unilever spot had been cleared with the usual government bodies but ran into trouble with Sarft. Even by Chinese standards, Sarft has a pretty nebulous remit. Its main purpose is to oversee state media, but it also censors material that might offend Chinese cultural standards and government.

Banning films and producers is not uncommon in China, but Sarft has previously denied that actors would be targeted. "I'm convinced that it was her role in Lust, Caution that had her banned on the mainland," Matt Donovan, the regional director of strategy at Euro RSCG, said, echoing the current consensus.

"It was politically sensitive and sexually explicit - not something the Party wants to see during the year of the Olympics," a source said.

"They just don't want young girls to think 'If I drop my clothes on camera, I'll become famous and rich'," another source close to the Chinese film industry said. "Onscreen nudity is not a big deal in Hollywood these days; in China, it is."

The timing of the Tang Wei ban, hot on the heels of the Edison Chen scandal in Hong Kong, gives further credence to this argument. The inability of Chinese government bodies to stop the leaked sex-photos of Chen and several Hong Kong starlets from being downloaded via the internet may well have fuelled a frustration that found expression in media that can still be controlled. A mainland ad featuring Cecilia Cheung, one of the starlets literally exposed in the Chen scandal, was promptly pulled. Damning though these crackdowns may seem, it is not simply a case of censorship getting tougher.

The ice-cream branch of Unilever recently signed up Hsu Qi to be the face of its premium Magnum marque. According to Ian Maskell, the business director at Unilever, Hsu Qi "represents the perfect endorsement for Magnum, as she embodies the sensuality of the brand".

Though she has cleaned up her career in the past decade, Hsu Qi's back catalogue includes such tantalising titles as Love: Amoeba Style and Viva Erotica - hardly wholesome family fun. Recent nudity mixed in with politically subversive content may be out, for now, but that is not stopping advertisers from playing on sexualised images when building brand identity.

Not everyone agrees that this is stifling advertising agencies' creativity in China, though all agree there is a need to "wait and see" until after the Olympics are over. "Right now, it's as if there's a conspiracy to make Chinese TV really boring so everyone will be even more excited when the Olympics start airing," one frustrated agency source said.

"You've got to look at what you can do within the restrictions and get really creative with that," Donovan argues. Another China agency insider adds: "Sure, it's vague, but it means we can push the boundaries and see how far we can go - it's still easier than advertising in Europe when it comes to restrictions."

Whatever the impact on advertising creativity turns out to be, there's little doubt that the recent scandals have done nothing to stifle the power of advertising in China. "Ogilvy got everyone to talk about Pond's thanks to the Tang Wei scandal," David Wolfe, the Wolfe group Asia chief executive, points out. "If that's not a successful campaign, I don't know what is."

- Ella Fitzsimmons is a reporter for Media magazine in Hong Kong.