Advertizing and the Shenzhen Soul


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Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

The elevators in my building have three walls dedicated to advertizing; the fourth wall, so to speak, is a door. These advertisements change every week. What’s more, the advertisements in each of the three elevators are different. This means that every week, I encountered nine different sales pitches for appliances, cars, cultural events, family phone plans, and beauty makeovers. In short, the walls of my elevator promote a constantly changing version of the good home life, which is presumably affordable to those who live here – the catch is to make these life purchases desirable.

One of the latest advertisements for a beauty makeover claims to be able to remove all traces of acne and pimples. This advertisement disturbs me because its intended audience is Generation 90, teenagers who in addition are under the stress of the gaokao are being told they have no place to hide themselves and feel safe from prying eyes. Given the fact that most adults only notice a teenager when said teenager has blundered, the feeling of an ostrich unable to safely hide its head in the sand is probably spot on, if you’ll forgive the pun.

In English, I have understood the expression “to hide one’s head in the sand” to mean something like “avoid reality” or “avoid the consequences of my actions”. For me, being an ostrich has implied a kind of cowardice and a reluctance to take responsibility. In contrast, this advertisement focuses on being exposed – warts and all – to the gaze of others. In other words, the Mandarin interpretation of “to hide one’s head in the sand” focuses on a response to feeling ashamed – hide one’s face.

In other posts, I have spoken of the difference between lian (face as a metaphor for ethical sensibility) and mianzi (face as a metaphor for prestige and social power), what I hadn’t seen at the time was the way in which the emotional impact of these metaphors is cultivated through reference to actual faces. We effectively use shame to control the behaviors of others not only because we care about ethics, power, and other abstract values, but also because we have been taught to value some faces more than others and in the process become ashamed of our own.

Such is the cruelty of advertizing; it exploits cultural tropes for profit. More lamentably, when successful, the creative minds behind such symbolic manipulation are rewarded for their lack of lian by increased mianzi.

Sigh.

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