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.