Chapter 57: Customers Are Our Lovers

As I began work at the global media company in Shanghai, I discovered that sometimes, the customer is not always right -- and definitely, is not your lover.
As I began work at the global media company in Shanghai, I discovered that sometimes, the customer is not always right -- and definitely, is not your lover. (image from EEfocus.com)

Silvery electronic components, in a swirling tornado shape. It was an unnatural disaster, against an electric blue background, that actually hoped to spin a tale — a tale of a Chinese manufacturer of electronic components. But the details were lost in the storm of objects, so instead of being informed or interested, I fought to hold back laughter.

It was hard not to laugh in the presence of Steve, a jovial thirtysomething American with a slight paunch, five-o-clock shadow and a shock of short wavy hair that was perhaps the only reminder of his nomadic Dead Head years. Steve had since gone corporate in joining the company, after years of work in public relations and copywriting. He was the Senior Copywriter for the ad production team I just joined in Shanghai, but even the training session he gave me this one morning, on how to write good ads for Chinese advertisers, bordered on comedic monologue — as we looked through the old magazine ads and the handbook, discussing how (or in the case of the vortex of components, how not) to make good ads.

“These are the sort of ads we used to do when I first joined the company,” he explained, pointing at the components ad. “The Account Executives pretty much ran the department, so we always had to do what the client wanted. It was a disaster.”

I knew disasters all too well. “Reminds me of the work I used to do in Hangzhou.” Most of the online ads I edited were benign, such as this About Us page — whose only faults included poor grammar and boring, awkward sentence structure:

Originally founded as Dagang Tianlong Chemical Plant, our company is a nongovernmental enterprise in Tianjin city with over ten years’production history. It has received awards for the following: unit strictly abiding by the contract and ” AAA ” enterprise . It is a powerful competitor both in international and domestic market for its good product technology , high quality and low price.

Product quality is the enterprise’s life. Our company is strict with product quality. Indexes of our products have reached national level. Caustic soda(NaOH)and magnesium sulplate(MgSO4.7H2O) are always well sold in most parts of our country and Australia. Products can meet clients’ different requirements.

But other ads were more bombastic, such as the webpage for a Chinese manufacturer with this slogan: Customers are our lovers. “This really isn’t appropriate language in English,” I pleaded with the client over the phone. “Your customers might get the wrong idea.”

In the end, though, the slogan stayed — and I, of course, left.

Now, however, customers were no longer our lovers — because, at this global media company, we wrote for the audience, not the advertisers. And everything we did built on this simple concept from our training:

Know your customer

Good advertising starts with understanding the buyer. What is his situation? Which are his problems? What does he need to hear? Knowing this, you can address his needs and everything else falls in place easily.

But the thing is, things don’t fall into place that easily — especially when you’ve just changed a system that, historically, thought the client was always right, even if she wasn’t. “We had some initial challenges with Sales, but our managers have been working with them to understand the new guidelines.” New guidelines meant the Account Executives no longer controlled the ad content — our department did. And management had only begun to educate them on effective advertising, a nascent concept in a China where, 25 years ago, a Communist government banned all commercial activity, including ads, in favor of government slogans and propaganda.

Still, we were a new department, and had only begun to collectively understand effective advertising, just as a recent ad, written by another foreign copywriter in the department, reminded me.

Above two comely young Chinese models, one with her hand seductively resting on a thigh, the headline read this: “Our output increases with your growing demands.”

Have you ever been surprised by the work culture or even the clients in China?

——–

Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 57: Customers Are Our Lovers

  • April 19, 2010 at 4:52 am
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    HA! That was awesome. You should explain that 客户 and 爱人 are *obviously* two different concepts. That would wake them up.

    It’s so funny to see these cheesy stuff. I’ve seen things like “please careful aiming” in front of urinals. And “carefully fall down” anti-slip warnings.. and.. “man contain own character” for menswear. I have even seen the f word misused in some of these signs.

    At least I’m Chinese and understand where they’re coming from. If I was a foreigner, I would be totally horrified.

    But “Our output increases with your growing demands” is always welcome ;D

    Reply
    • April 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm
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      Hi Chris, thanks for the comment! Yeah, I really tried to explain to them, but they insisted…(it was, incidentally, 客户是我们的情人). 😉

      It is pretty funny, but, indeed, if you have an understanding of Chinese, you know what they meant to say. When my dad, who knows no Chinese, came to China for our wedding, he couldn’t get over the “carefully fall down” sign in the bathroom (which meant to warn him it might be slippery and you could fall down).

      “Our output increases with your growing demands” is classic (and, ironically, written by us foreigners)! It was one of our favorite funny ads. If not for the fact that it would violate copyright (and get me in some serious trouble with my former employer) I would love to post it up here b/c the visual is so much better than me writing about it.

      Reply
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  • April 19, 2010 at 3:08 pm
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    I remember betting with my friend that in ANY long enough English ad in China it is possible to find at least two mistakes. So far I always managed to win.
    What really makes me desperate is that such mistakes exist not only on paper, but are also carved in stones in descriptions for different touristic places of interest…
    .-= Crystal´s last blog ..Chinese Girls Want To Be Whiter =-.

    Reply
    • April 19, 2010 at 9:06 pm
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      Hi Crystal, thanks for sharing — and how sad (but true). Some just don’t realize how damaging (and, at times, hilarious) mistakes like these can be.

      Reply
  • Pingback:On Love in the Workplace in China | Speaking of China

  • June 8, 2016 at 11:38 pm
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    People who have little understanding of english will make these mistakes thinking it will be ok, even when or if the “customer is our lover” [trying to understand this one, but i fail, lol]

    Im sure you heard of creative writing.. i came to the conclusion it means to find creative ways of formulating sentences to make them be as grammatically correct as possible. yup..

    I was given many weird keywords by a client, and i was supposed to use them as they were in articles. example keyword “car painting CITY NAME”… my solution: “if you were always searching for good car painting, CITY NAME has several businesses offering this service.” I had to bold out the keyword to make sure the client sees it. the thing was that i couldn’t add an “in” before “CITY,” but nobody said i couldn’t add a “,” in there 😉

    Reply

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