Postcard: Marketing to Chinese in their 20s

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BEIJING -- Prosperous, tech-savvy Chinese twentysomethings are prime targets for advertisers here, the kind of audience the Beijing Olympics is providing ever greater opportunities to reach. But figuring out how to do that remains a work in progress.

While TV accounted for about 80% of China's total ad spending in 2007 at 362 billion yuan ($53 billion in current dollars) -- compared with $70 billion in the U.S. -- the rise in Internet use seems to signal a serious shift, a slow migration from traditional, passive TV-watching.

The move could represent the closing of another chapter for a technology leapfrogging nation that saw millions use a cell phone before they had a landline; at 600 million, China now has almost twice as many mobile users as the U.S. has residents.

Tang Huixia, Li Yang and David Law -- three young Beijing residents who recently gathered around the TV to critique a medium they rarely watch these days -- probably represent China's next generation as well as any.

Tang, a journalism student and the daughter of a retired TV executive, can remember watching black-and-white broadcasts from nearby Hong Kong while growing up in Huizhou, a petrochemicals hub of 3 million. She and her father watched serial dramas set in ancient China beamed in Cantonese.

These days, the 22-year-old finds it easier to use her laptop to stream news or download U.S. series like "Prison Break." Still, Tang admits that Chinese TV has improved -- just not all at the same pace.

The only English-speaker in her family, she prefers Mandarin-language Phoenix TV over the CNN and BBC feeds she's been able to get via satellite for the past year. But she also prefers Hong Kong-based Phoenix to China's state-run CCTV, which has exclusive domestic rights to the Beijing Games.

"There is more competition, and Phoenix has more information that is comparatively balanced," Tang says. "CCTV is just one way to get information."

Classmate Li, 21, an aspiring broadcast journalist, is dissatisfied with the progress of the medium even as the government pushes to digitize in major cities like Beijing, where Nielsen data showed 7% penetration in 2007.

"The digital broadcast color is no good," she says. "The white balance is off."

Both Tang and Li, who live at Shantou University in Guangdong during the school year, more frequently turn to video sites with names like TuDou -- literally, "potato," as in couch.

Sipping a Coke, Li says she also used to watch the period epics that remain a CCTV mainstay. Today, she watches foreign films, most of them downloaded from the Web. (Advertisers have noticed, though at a slower pace than TV: China's online ad spending reached 9.4 billion yuan in 2007, Nielsen Online data shows.)

Drawn back to TV for the opening of the Games, she found herself disappointed.

"It was a fantasy," she says, unhappy with the goose-stepping soldiers and the fact that the 9-year-old girl who serenaded China's flag into the Bird's Nest National Stadium turned out to be lip-synching.

Li also scoffed at a traditional TV spot for cooking oil that featured athletes running, jumping and eating fried foods.

Law, a 26-year-old in the software business, was a bit more forgiving of today's TV ads.

"As it has changed other industries, the Olympics have also changed Chinese TV," he says. "A lot of companies are using this opportunity to show us our new choices."
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