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Selling Bottled Moonlight

Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on February 24, 2016

Advertising is as old in China as anywhere else, but there are often local differences and many of the issues that faced by one advertising executive in China in the 1920s and 30s are the same as those which face marketers today.

Carl Crow, an American journalist with United Press, arrived in China in 1912 and stayed to set up the first foreign advertising agency in Shanghai. He ran it for 25 years. At that time, China was barely industrialized and had only a fraction of the population that it does today, but Shanghai was a wealthy and powerful cosmopolitan city that offered daily newspapers in six European languages.

Crow wrote of his experiences in a 1937 book, 400 million Customers. For the most part, it is made up of recollections and anecdotes including his battles with staff insistent on showing the firms prosperity by working in the foyer where the public could more easily admire them and their work. Another typical story was his inspiration to round up 50 underfed rickshaw drivers to act as impartial judges of the 500 entries amateur chefs had submitted to win prizes in a client’s baking contest. Most of these stories are artfully arranged to reflect on the foolish mistakes that Western marketers pursued in trying to exploit the supposedly greatly untapped market of China.

The great untapped market theory is a myth so enduring that decades later, books such as A Billion Boxes of Detergent, Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, and even Doing Business in China for Dummies are still trying to exploit the idea.

Crow teases readers with the thought of every reader eating half as many apples as the average Britain. Chinese generally love apples, but Crow felt obliged to point out several practical marketing considerations such as the fact that it would require the whole of the British fleet to transport the necessary 115 million apples a day. His other point is the startling news that the Chinese are poor. They do not have the money to spend on a daily luxury of expenses imported apples for detergent. This may have changed in recent years with the rise of a Chinese middle class but many Chinese still lack the buying power of other industrialized nations.

One of the ways in which foreign companies have always tried to increase market share is to regularly update packaging. Perhaps this is beginning to work on today’s consumers, but Crow pointed out that the Chinese traditionally associated change in a product’s packaging design with a decline in quality, for example observing that cigarettes become shorter and thinner and use successively inferior crates of tobacco mixed with cheaper filler. Crow recognize this truth and engaged himself in the thankless task of convincing his clients of it.

In Crow’s time, there was little protection available to consumers and, in one of his few miscalculations; he pessimistically predicted it would take 25 years before China adopted strict standards for the advertising industry. If only he knew how much longer his customers have had to wait.

Brand loyalty to many products has always been extremely strong in China, partially because of the organization and memory of the Chinese family. As it was common for an extended family to live under one roof and for power and purse strings to be controlled by the eldest generation, decisions on what should be bought or made on the basis of what worked well in the past. Crow, also the author of the book on Confucius, explains traditional Chinese suspicion of advertising with the quote from the Analects, “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.” (Book I, Chapter III).

On the other hand, the structure of peer approval for purchases has meant the testimonials have long been a standard aspect of Chinese advertising. Celebrity endorsements are now common in Chinese advertising, including ads by Hollywood actors.

Crow documents how one use of testimonials seriously backfired. After a successful sales campaign for a British brand of cocoa, several consumers wrote in to say that since starting to drink the product, their indigestion and sleeplessness have been cured! In fact, this was probably more due to the fact that warm chocolate milk had replaced their endless pots of caffeine-rich tea. Regardless, Crow drew up the campaign featuring several of these letters and managed to increase sales dramatically as a result.

But when he wrote to England to inform the manufacturer of this success, he received a caustic letter by return post stating that the reputation of “this old and respectable firm has been dragged in the mire by your blatant and unethical advertising.” The account was promptly withdrawn but Crow was able to note with satisfaction that relief from insomnia soon became the standard claim of cocoa manufacturers.

Another enduring truth in Chinese marketing is that the use of point-of-purchase samples only depresses demand; Chinese expect to pay for goods and it's all too likely that samples shipped to stores will he sold, despite all instructions to the contrary. On the other hand, newspaper coupons have always been extremely effective. Crow points out, however, that a coupon alone is not an intelligent marketing choice and documents cases where hordes of newsboys assembled at his office, each bearing hundreds of coupons. They had calculated the resale value of both the free sample and the newspaper and bought up the better part of that day's press run.

In contrast to today's practice of having text and illustrations complement each other, the relatively high rates of illiteracy in Crow's time meant that he had to resort to the use of picture writing; getting the meaning across with limited text or without text altogether. Any written message that was used beyond brand identification had to be repeated in a series of visuals. This is still a good idea; although China’s literacy rate is 95%, which still leaves about 54 million whose comprehension of written text is extremely limited.

As part of this visual strategy, one of Crow’s innovations when introducing new concepts and products to China was to take full advantage of opportunities in translation to coin the picturesque word or phrase. In the 1930s the marketing of mundane incandescent bulbs was no doubt helped by its lovely Chinese translation “bottled moonlight” and by Crow’s wisdom in incorporating the image into his advertisements.

However, it is important to note one lesson in visual literacy that Crow was fortunate to have learned secondhand. Another agency drew up a lovely calendar poster each ringing illustration of a package of their client’s cigarettes. A four color print run of 10,000 was finished before it was pointed out to the agency that the illustration featured only nine cigarettes protruding from the package. The 10th cigarette was certainly there and was only just out of sight, but it was the consensus of every Chinese asked that the man on the street would balk at the possibility of only getting nine cigarettes when paying for ten. The entire print run had to be trashed.

Crow seems to have prospered because he took the time to understand the Chinese and, rather than try to change his 400 million customers, he tried to adapt to them. When, for reasons of feng shui, the village wanted to tear down a cigarette billboard that Crow’s client liked to admire on his way to the golf course, Crow suggested a happy compromise lighting US$20 worth of fireworks to clear off all offending spirits.

Most of Crow’s observations were possible because he thought the Chinese market a singular one, worthy of a domestic agency and because he was not willing to blindly import the advertisements of Britain and America. Years later, the question is whether international advertising campaigns and marketing stratagems are any closer to understanding China’s 1.35 billion customers.


Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More