January 28, 1979 was an important day for China. Deng Xiaoping visited the United States. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored. And then China changed forever. At 3:05 p.m., China’s very first TV commercial was shown in Shanghai.
The watershed 90-second commercial, for Shenguiyangrong Ginseng Liquor, has disappeared, but a few people remember it. Apparently, it’s the simple story of a couple who go to a shop with their child, to buy a bottle of booze as a gift. And that’s about it.
When the Shanghainese watched this first commercial, they were sure it was a news story. All they had ever seen during breaks was a blank screen, or sometimes a still shot of an ashtray and cigarette signaling them to take five. So they sat, and watched. A far cry from running screaming from a movie theater, the famous French reaction to the first films shown, but perhaps similar to the first time Americans saw an infomercial.
Despite this confusion, it worked like a charm. The advertised liquor sold out almost everywhere within two weeks, even though one bottle cost a quarter the average monthly salary of a university graduate. Other pioneers in this exciting new world enjoyed similar results. The few television channels, and even fewer commercials, ensured instant success.
But the ad was far from uncontroversial. In fact, it was nearly killed just 30 seconds before it aired. The whiff of capitalism was a little strong to some.
A leak in this “Mad Men” dam had already sprung the day before, when two paid promos showed up in The Jiefang Daily. And after Shanghai, the waters really began to flow. Guangdong TV launched an advertising business, then CCTV began to broadcast ads, and Japan’s top agency opened offices in both Beijing and Shanghai. The dam finally broke in 1994, when ad sales hit 10 billion RMB, and global agencies entered the Chinese market. After that, there was no turning back.
At this time of the Chinese New Year, it’s interesting to note that this all started on the first day of The Year of the Sheep. After all, the Chinese zodiac strongly recommends sheep go into the arts…or advertising. Seriously.
- How do you post an advertisement online?
- I can’t stand the commercials.