Ten years ago, a Chinese-brand TV set would be hard to distinguish from a 60s washing machine. Sat in the department store next to the slick Japanese models, it wasn't even a pale imitation. That pretty much summed up the state of affairs in just about every product category; local-brand laundry powders were ineffective, light bulbs lasted about two weeks and the beer had formaldehyde in it (which is not as much fun as it sounds).
Things were cheap but definitely not cheerful.
No real surprises, then, that the ads simply matched the product quality.
But it was early days in terms of transformation towards capitalism, so understandable and forgivable.
But as you've all heard by now, things are changing fast in China. Skyscrapers are built overnight on top of swamps. Former peasants are being fitted out in Versace and rickshaws are being traded in for Bentleys. The change really is quite extraordinary and can only be likened to post-war reconstruction in Japan.
The same changes are apparent in Chinese product quality.
Today, a Chinese TV set is a perfectly respectable - and still considerably cheaper - alternative to a Japanese model, local laundry powders now remove stains, the lights work and the beer won't kill you.
Unfortunately, though, the quality of the advertising hasn't moved on.
Now, of course, product quality is never a great measure of ad quality.
After all, the Germans can bolt together a decent bit of sheet metal, but their contribution to advertising is pretty limited. However, the situation in China is dire and in urgent need of a great leap forward.
To be fair, the floor has lifted but the ceiling hasn't been raised. There are fewer "my brother has a video camera" home movie-style howlers, but these have been replaced by 30-second demo sequences, complete with molecule computer-generated images, wrapped in happy-family bullshit.
This is not just the subjective observations of a disgruntled expat; Chinese people are fed up with the quality of the ads too. A Lowe survey found that China now has the highest advertising-avoidance rate in the world, with 72 per cent of people agreeing that they either leave the room or change channels when the ads come on (beating the next highest, Germany, by 4 per cent). That's a lot of annoyed people tuning out and an absurd waste of money.
This is no longer a sideline issue. China is now the third-largest advertising market in the world and there's a lot of defensive denial about the quality of the work coming out of China. It's time for a purge. At least there needs to be some recognition that there is in fact a very expensive problem in China. As the Chairman once said: "The only way to deal with our inadequacies is to first face up to the fact that we have them."
- Stephen Drummond is the regional planning director at Lowe China.