Sexism and gender stereotyping in Chinese advertising
By Jiayun Feng | April 1, 2020
In China, women are making up a bigger part of the workforce and the economy. According to Hurun, a Shanghai-based research company, Chinese businesswomen account for more than half of the world’s self-made female billionaires in 2019. It also predicts that, thanks to major improvements in educational equality in China, which is key to ensuring women have access to work opportunities, Chinese women will continue to dominate the list in the foreseeable future.
Along with the rise of Chinese female entrepreneurs, there has been an astronomical growth in women’s homeownership. In 2018, about 46.7% of homebuyers in China were women, up from a measly 5% of all property purchases in 2016.
While Chinese women have undeniably acquired greater decision-making power in both their households and the markets in the past decade, their improved economic status has done little to uproot the deeply ingrained sexism in Chinese society, where women are objectified and expected to conform to ultra-traditional gender roles.
These regressive attitudes toward women are most clearly evident in Chinese advertising, which often perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes.
Let’s look at some of the most egregious examples of sexist Chinese advertising in recent years, with each sparking complaints and controversy:
In this 30-second commercial released by German car manufacturer Audi in 2017, a groom’s mother aggressively inspects the bride’s physical appearance during a wedding ceremony — pinching her nose, pulling her ear, and forcing the bride to open her mouth. The mother-in-law then makes an “OK” gesture — before noticing the bride’s breasts. “An important decision must be made carefully,” a voiceover says, with the video cutting to footage of an Audi.
The ad provoked an outcry on Chinese social media, with many accusing Audi of comparing women with used cars. After it was revealed that the ad was made only for the Chinese market, Audi removed the commercial and apologized, saying that the video didn’t correspond to the values of the company in any way.
About three months after Audi’s offensive ad, in a move that many critics called tone deaf, Swedish furniture chain Ikea caught heat for a television commercial in which a mother scolds her twentysomething daughter for not bringing home a boyfriend. She tells the young woman not to call her “Mom” if she fails to find a partner soon.
As the tension escalates, a well-dressed young man suddenly shows up at the door with a bouquet. After the daughter introduces the man as her boyfriend, her parents joyfully welcome the guest to their dinner table with Ikea tableware.
The ad attracted a great deal of criticism in China for its insensitivity toward single women. Widely stigmatized as “leftover women,” these singletons, in spite of their achievements in many aspects of their life, still face an undue amount of pressure from their families and society at large to get married.
As more and more brands try to capitalize on the purchasing power of Chinese women, Japanese electronics and entertainment behemoth Sony somehow thought it would be a good idea to insult the intelligence of its female customers. In a controversial post on Weibo in February, the Japanese firm wrote, “When your girlfriend quizzes you about lipstick shades again, just fire back with questions about these lenses.”
The ad quickly went viral on social media, eliciting a deluge of criticism from people arguing that the post implied that photography — as a profession or hobby — is beyond women’s grasps. The post was especially disrespectful to female photographers who own Sony equipment. “I spent thousands of yuan on your cameras in 2019. Turns out you think I don’t know how to use my stuff!” an offended customer commented.
Juewei Duck Neck 绝味鸭脖
In the same year that Audi and Ikea came under fire, Juewei Duck Neck (绝味鸭脖 juéwèi yābó), a retail snack chain with more than 9,000 stores across China, created a poster depicting a woman lying on a bed with her legs chained. Besides her is the marketing punchline: “Do you want it? It’s fresh, tender, and juicy.”
While leveraging sex to sell products is a common tactic in the advertising industry, Juewei clearly crossed the line. After a flurry of complaints denouncing the poster as tasteless and disturbing, Juewei pulled the ad and apologized.
You’d assume Juewei would have learned its lesson, but sex was so central to the brand’s marketing strategy that merely two days after it apologized for the poster, it published another inappropriate post on its WeChat account. “My time of the month arrived sooner than it was supposed to. It’s full of taste and heavier than ever before,” the post’s subtitle reads, a clear reference to menstruation.
Given Juewei’s track record of making risque commercials portraying women as sexual objects, local authorities in Hunan Province fined the company 600,000 yuan ($88,750) in 2017.
Coconut Palm 椰树牌
Two years ago, Coconut Palm (椰树牌 yēshù pái), a leading coconut milk brand in China, was investigated by local authorities in Hainan Province for several commercials featuring sexual taglines and images of well-endowed models.
In one advertisement, a woman with large breasts can be seen holding a can of coconut milk in a tight white tank top. Next to her is a slogan that reads, “A can a day and you’ll be pale and busty.” On the beverage’s packaging, there is another woman in an extremely tight dress that shows her curves. Placed adjacent to her is this quote: “I grew up drinking it.”
For women who use carpooling services, each ride can be a nerve-wracking experience filled with concerns about harassment, abduction, or worse. In 2017, these fears became real when Didi, China’s biggest ride-hailing platform, found itself answering for the rape and murder of two women by their drivers.
The incidents brought to light Didi’s misogynist approach to promoting its ride-pooling service Hitch, which was disturbingly branded as an opportunity for romance for male riders and a chance for drivers to hit on female passengers. In one Hitch commercial ahead of Chinese Valentine’s Day in 2018, Didi wrote, “Let’s date. This is how we should use Hitch.” In another advertising poster, a pretty young lady is seen using the service with a caption reading, “Not only budget-friendly, but also eye-pleasing.”
Alibaba and Meituan
Women around the world are chronically underrepresented in the tech industry, but the situation is particularly grave in China, where internet giants not only do basically nothing to address their lack of gender diversity, but also use female employees as a selling point to lure male talent. In 2018, a Chinese ecommerce conglomerate found itself at the center of a controversy after an old job post surfaced on the internet. Featuring photos of female Alibaba employees in suggestive poses, the ad says, “They want to be your coworkers. Do you want that, too?” In another recruitment video, released in 2012, a female worker performs a pole dance following a montage of Alibaba women saying, “I love tech boys.”
Meanwhile, Meituan, a Chinese food delivery service partially funded by Alibaba, pushed the envelope even further in a job advertisement targeting college graduates looking for employment. “Finding a job is just like finding a woman. Do what you’d like to do,” reads the poster, which features a photo of a slim woman taking off her panties.
Even though it’s widely known that women are more likely than men to buy goods online, Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com blatantly offended its female customers in a 2018 marketing campaign to promote the sales of cosmetics products. The controversial marketing slogan reads: “If you do not put on lipstick, how are you different from a man?”
Meanwhile, some brands are shattering gender stereotypes
Judging from these major missteps, it’s evident that sexism is alive and well in Chinese advertising, even as outcry over gender stereotypes and objectification has become louder. On a positive note, though, recent years have seen an increasing number of brands embrace feminist ideas and female empowerment in their marketing campaigns.
Japanese skincare brand SK-II has been roundly praised by critics and viewers over the years for its commitment to encouraging women to go strong and take control of their future. In 2016, as part of its marketing campaign, SK-II released a four-minute commercial called “Marriage Market Takeover.” By shedding a critical light on the parental and societal pressures faced by single women in China — specifically asking them to describe how they are torn between their parents’ wishes and their own pursuit of true love — the heartfelt commercial struck a chord with millions of viewers and successfully elevated the brand’s profile among consumers.
In a real-life portrayal of the systemic inequalities and discrimination women face in the workplace, Chinese beauty brand Chando released an award-winning video in 2018 in which interviewers ask male job applicants eyebrow-raising questions that women often encounter in job interviews, such as their marital status, plans for having kids, and how they maintain mental stability in a high-pressure environment. It’s entertaining to watch the bewildered looks on the interviewees’ faces, but the video also serves as a grim reminder of what female job applicants put up with.