From ancient Arabian traders to Marco Polo’s followers, merchants have tried to transform China’s massive population into materialistic consumers. In less than 30 years, millionaires, pop stars, and “Mongolia Cow Yogurt Super Girls” have replaced Mao’s working-class heroes. How did China become a consumerist society in such short order?
A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research looks at the role advertising has played in China’s transformation. Authors Xin Zhao (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and Russell W. Belk (York University, Toronto) analyzed advertisements in the Chinese media for clues on how sociological and ideological change has taken place in the People’s Republic.
Advertising is the major propaganda vehicle for consumerism, and an excellent arena to explore China’s changing values, explain the authors: “We examine how advertising appropriates a dominant anti-consumerist political ideology to promote consumption within China’s social and political transition.”
The researchers studied advertisements in the People’s Daily, the oldest and largest newspaper in China, as well as additional sources. By taking a close look at the ads, the authors observed the ways advertisers utilized communist symbols and messages. “Throughout the 1980s and even today, sacred political icons such as red stars and red flags, which used to be closely connected with the power and ideology of Chinese communism, have often been co-opted in advertising to promote consumer goods from color TVs to refrigerators,” write the authors.
The research examined how advertisers transformed socialist economic goals of modernization into consumer messages designed to make consumers feel they were a part of China’s transformation.
The authors believe that China’s lessons are applicable to other developing economies. “Never in the course of human history have a larger number of people gained more wealth in such a short time. China provides an unprecedented opportunity to examine the rise of consumerism in the contemporary world and similar patterns likely exist in other societies,” the authors conclude.
- Zhao et al. Politicizing Consumer Culture: Advertising’s Appropriation of Political Ideology in China’s Social Transition. Journal of Consumer Research, 2008; 35 (2): 231 DOI: 10.1086/588747
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