WORLDWIDE ADVERTISING: China's new maturity - As China warms up for a starring role on the world economic stage, evolving cultural values and the spectre of foreign competition are breathing new life into the nation's advertising. Jo Bowman reports from the new-look China

Now that China has become a member of the World Trade Organisation, advertisers are starting to break free from tradition. Chinese companies are scrambling to cement customer loyalty, while market newcomers are embarking on branding missions.

Cheesy images of happy families are giving way to humour and ingenuity, providing not just more effective advertising but an entertaining window on the outside world.

Eddie Booth, the executive creative director and chairman of Leo Burnett Greater China, says a survey conducted late last year revealed that Chinese consumers appreciate witty and subtle advertising messages.

"One of the major obstacles facing China today in terms of creativity is that many clients and agencies think mainland Chinese audiences are not savvy in terms of whether they understand advertising that's not literal,

he says. "But if you go to China and look at the way people dress and their lifestyles, especially in the major cities, it's not that different from anywhere else in the world."

Consumers were shown a range of advertisements, some local and some winners of Cannes Lions. "What they voted for was not that different," Booth says. "It's just a difference in approach - they would still like more information (in advertising) than anyone else."

"Is China making leaps forward in creativity?

Tom Doctoroff, the north-east Asia director and greater China chief executive of J. Walter Thompson, asks. "Only gradually, but it's going forward because young people, the 18- to 34-year olds, are able to digest sophisticated messages."

Ken Wright, the greater China chief executive for D'Arcy, says his agency's work for Procter & Gamble's feminine hygiene range, Whisper, shows how the industry is "growing up".The ad has a "young female attitude

he says.

"It's certainly not mother telling daughter the right way to look after herself."

Booth believes Leo Burnett's recent McDonald's work sets new creative standards. In one TV ad a prince finds a sleeping Snow White and tries to wake her with kisses. When she fails to wake, the desperate prince shouts "one, two, three", the name of a promotion from McDonald's, which miraculously works. Another TV ad spoofs an old Chinese film - itself a remake of The Graduate - but when the star bursts into the wedding scene, he shouts "one, two, three

instead of "I love you".

"This is quite a breakthrough for China as it breaks away from warm fuzzy families having a great time. We hope it will be a very good benchmark for future work,

Booth says.

The use of local talent, particularly celebrities, is also gaining popularity as the novelty of the West begins to wear off and consumers take greater pride in their own stars. The Cantopop singer and actor Nicholas Tse advertises Coke, and the diving sensation Fu Mingxia is the face of Sprite.

The industry is proceeding cautiously, however, under the critical eye of the government censors who enforce strict, and often changing, rules.

"There are a lot of taboos,

Booth says, whose Snow White ad required careful editing. "There's never a lip-to-lip kiss with the girl. There can be no product comparison of any sort, and there are rules about men in lab coats. No nudity is just a given."

Doctoroff says the censors rule out anything that shocks, however innocuous it might be to Western eyes. He recalls an ad for Pizza Hut that showed a boy standing on his desk announcing how good the latest pizza was: "The censors didn't like it because it looked like a demonstration."

Rules on pharmaceutical advertising are the toughest, banning before-and-after comparisons, shots of symptoms or patients, and anything that gives the impression of a doctor's endorsement.

And agencies and their clients are also increasingly giving Chinese audiences credit for their wit. Doctoroff says the stereotype of humourless mainlanders is "totally untrue". "Every commercial that we do we like to have a twist at the end because they really like a good joke."

The bulk of adspend is going into TV. Chris Walton, the managing director of MindShare China, says TV took 65 per cent of the total advertising pie last year and this share is increasing, particularly in markets outside the major cities, as TV stations improve their programming.

"TV stations now research what their audiences want to watch - something that was unheard of a few years ago,

he says. Outside the major centres of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, outdoor and print advertising is taking off, although both media have their drawbacks.

While outdoor advertisers are starting to use simple images and slogans, air pollution can limit their effectiveness. Posters for clean, white hygiene products, for instance, become laughable when coated in black exhaust fume deposits.

And in newspapers, the quality of photo reproductions is still quite poor, to the point where Booth says McDonald's never uses the medium in China as the food shots look so unappetising.

The booming Chinese market has one major advantage though: consumers actually want to see ads. "Nobody is cynical about advertising here - it allows self-expression and freedom,

Doctoroff says, despite the limits imposed by censorship.

"The Chinese, particularly the younger generation, look to advertising not just as information but as pop culture,

he states.