The TV’s in some of the subway lines in Beijing are now playing an epic, 10-minute long Spring Festival 春节 (Chinese New Year)-themed Pepsi commercial. The commercial, which features a star-studded cast of Chinese celebrities and is directed by the award-winning director Zhang Guoli 张国立, tells the story of one Chinese family and how Pepsico products brought them together for the holidays (description below):
The clip opens on the family’s father, who is a security guard at a small-town train station, closing up after the last train on Spring Festival and finding a lone stranger waiting on the bench outside. Not willing to leave the stranger alone on the holiday, he brings the man back to stay with him for the evening and eat dumplings together, a traditional Spring Festival food. Through phone conversations with each of his three grown children, we learn that all three have blown off their father for the holiday. The older daughter, a high-powered publisher, is swamped with work; the younger daughter, a free-spirit photographer, has made plans to travel with friends; and the son, a pop singer, has a career-making gig booked. “Papa understands 爸爸理解,” the father says, hanging up the phone, before the camera cuts to him gazing forlornly at a table full of Pepsi products (Pepsi, Tropicana orange juice, and Lays chips), presumably which had been bought to consume over the holiday. “This is how we’ll spend the holiday this year 新年就这么过吧,” he says, to which the stranger replies, “Not necessarily 那不一定.”
The father goes to sleep, following which the commercial cuts to a montage of the stranger encountering each of the children the next day. He hands each of them one of the three featured Pepsi products (Pepsi, Tropicana, Lays), which for each of them triggers a flashback to a childhood memory when they consumed their chosen product with their father. These are interspersed with shots of the father walking his bike throughout his town, handing out the Pepsi products to neighbors as New Year’s gifts–his children aren’t coming home, so he has no need of them anyway. The stranger runs into him at the end of his rounds, saying, “This is a time for family members to be together, 这是家人团结的时刻,” before leaving. Cut to the father forlornly eating hot pot alone at home, when the two daughters burst through the door, home for the holidays after all. A noise brings the three of them outside, where they find the son has brought his whole tour bus, backup dancers and all, to the small town. The commercial ends with the son giving a concert to the whole village, as the father continues to happily distribute Pepsi products. Amid the fireworks, the text appears: “Bring Happiness Home 把乐事回家.” Added bonus: The names of all three Pepsi products featured, Pepsi Cola 百事可乐, Tropicana 纯果乐, and Lays 乐事, all have the character 乐, “happiness,” in their names.
Certainly holiday-themed commercials are nothing new in the United States, but the idea of a high-production commercial, in which the Chinese equivalent of the Ghost of Christmas Past helps the protagonists recapture the spirit of the holidays through the distribution of soft drinks and snack foods, strikes me as something slightly more exaggerated than would generally go over with an American audience. I would argue that American advertisers face a greater challenge in marketing to a postmodern, corporate-suspicious audience. The goal with high-budget American advertising is to create something clever or gimmicky, often unrelated to the product itself, something that will stay in viewer’s minds despite the fact that it’s advertising and that it’s associated with a product. With Chinese commercials like this, however, the message can be much more direct and straightforward: our product will bring you holiday cheer.
Certainly, as this recent New York Times article about choosing brand names describes, Western multinationals face a unique challenge in crafting a brand identity that will resonate in China. It’s something that I’ve found myself thinking a lot about in this job: as we look for American corporations who would consider including Teach For China as part of their CSR initiatives, I find myself reading a lot of corporate annual reports. With some of them, you can really get a sense of what kind of a claim the company is hoping to stake in China. For many, China plays only a single part in a larger global strategy. On the other hand, with KFC now clobbering McDonalds in China, Yum! Brands has made China their singular focus, and is even selling of A&W and Long John Silvers in order to focus on efforts here. As a KFC commercial now playing in some movie theaters says: “Our figure is in China 我们的未来在中国”
Which still leaves me with the task of trying to get money out of them…