The World: Insider's View - China

Sex sells, but not in China. Brands need to make stronger connections with consumers without falling foul of the country's stringent laws, Dean Bramham writes.

It may be the world's most populous country, and one of its largest advertising markets, but China's media remains tightly controlled by its leaders. The most recent example of this was the move, last month, to curb sexually explicit advertising on radio and TV.

Although not entirely clear, the laws seem to be aimed specifically at sex-related products, or products that use sex appeal or sexually suggestive connotations to sell: products including breast enlargement night creams, sex toys and drugs for sexually transmitted diseases seem to be the sorts of things the government is focusing on.

Interestingly, the Chinese government's view of advertising and commercial communication is that mass media exists for the benefit of public, social and cultural wellbeing - no surprise then that its leaders believe the state has a huge responsibility to manage the content, tone and claims being made by advertisers.

The new regulations relating to sexual expression and language in advertising came as little surprise to the industry. In recent months, the government had already tightened its grip on TV and radio broadcasting by banning TV shows about cosmetic surgery and sex changes, as well as a talent show that it considered to be "crass". A crackdown seemed to be on the cards.

Thankfully for mainstream brands, the crackdown we're now seeing does seem, on the surface, to be aimed at "fly-by-night" sex-related products. The ad industry here is hoping and assuming that the impact on everyday brands and their advertising will be minimal.

The question that remains, though, is how on earth the government will implement the new rules across the country? How will it define what is a sexual claim, sex-related content, or, for that matter, "good taste"? And all this comes just as advertisers start cranking up their activities in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics - with regulators keen to show China in a good light and as a socially responsible country.

Ultimately, if one was to top-line the state of play in China, the new sex ban would not top the list. Rather, the biggest issue facing the industry is the fact so few international or local brands have found a unique and distinctive Chinese voice. Most communications are still fixated on dramatising product attributes, contrived and cliched storylines, and the universal "go-to" solution - celebrity endorsement.

China is a country rich in insights that brands can use to make strong connections with their consumers. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for smart brands able to make these connections and touch the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. Just as long as they don't do it by using sexual innuendo ...

- Dean Bramham is the managing director of Leo Burnett Worldwide in Northern China.

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