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Why Western advertisers still get Chinese New Year wrong

I thought I might call this video and post ‘Tripping Tiger, Dodgy Dragon’ to celebrate the comically repetitive practice of some leading global firms to hastily come up with questionable Chinese New Year commercials. It is that time of the year again: multinational firms try to plug their business into festive Chinese consumer traditions with creative ideas. Once again, many of them create failed examples that range from the hilarious to the outright confusing. Leading the way this year is Gucci’s campaign with a young model and a tiger who are clearly on uncomfortable terms with each other, but I see lots of creative litter (and a few brilliant ideas) everywhere I go in Shanghai. (There’s not much travelling between Chinese cities this year.)

Why, after a quarter century of involvement in China, do Western firms still get Chinese New Year Wrong? I see three principal reasons.

ONE: Still unprepared

Many Chinese New Year advertising campaigns by international fashion houses seem to be hastily and consequently, outright poorly prepared. It is almost as if executives suddenly realised that the holiday is coming up in a few months and grabbed the most obvious idea available. Some of these are culturally insensitive to the point of being amusing: during my twenty years in China, Mickey Mouse chewed his way into Year of the Mouse campaigns twice. At least in I trained internal marketing people for a Disney campaign, but the commercial I feature in my video was not even for Disney. Hasty creatives suffer from what Accidental Business Nomad author Kyle Hegarty calls the ‘slap-dragon’ mentality: “Just slap a dragon on it and it will be okay for China”. The Gucci campaign fittingly suffers from a ‘slap-tiger’ syndrome: poor feline looks like it accidentally walked into a 5-o’clock tea photo shoot, and the model is clearly too uncomfortable in its presence to celebrate.

TWO: Neither kinda Christmas, nor kinda Halloween

Foreign-commissioned Chinese New Year campaigns often misrepresent the spirit and symbolism behind Chinese New Year. One recurring complaint from locals is that holiday commercials by global fashion houses are scary. Painful as it is to admit to high-fashion designers, Chinese New Year, just like Christmas, is a tacky holiday, so seasonal commercials cannot be scary, dark or even minimalistic. Moreover, animals in the Chinese zodiac represent different values from the ones we associate with them in the west. While Mickey Mouse is careless and naughty like most mice in our children’s stories, the mouse of the Chinese zodiac stands for foresight and wealth accumulation because mice (have you ever found a nest in your house?) love collecting stuff for the future. Similarly, China’s Tiger star sign stands not for wild temper but, as the Wang (王) character that Chinese folklore assigns to its forehead, to majesty and responsibility—a bit like the lion in the west.

THREE: It's all about family

While most Western commercials get Chinese New Year wrong (and some very wrong), fortunately there are still some Western companies that can be creative while still staying true to the holiday’s spirit. Perhaps because they give more authority to local designers (just guessing!), they remember the only thing that matters for the country’s population, wherever they are, whether they are beggars, Buddhist monks or billionaires, through good times and bad, common prosperity and COVID: Family! My favourite examples of Chinese New Year localisation all reflect the festive spirit of celebrating, or at least belonging together. Watch the video for Coca-Cola cans that look and could pop like firecrackers or images of people returning to their hometowns, and my absolute favourite: family members chasing each other with so-called red envelopes of gifted cash across buildings and lifetimes.

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