Road to Beijing: On shaky ground
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NEW YORK -- It has only gone from bad to worse in China this spring.
Protesters from London to Paris to San Francisco dogged the Coca-Cola-sponsored Olympic torch relay to shout down China's rule of Tibet. Mia Farrow lambasted China's trade with Sudan because of Darfur and Steven Spielberg quit his advisory role to the Olympic Games' opening ceremony.
Shortly after that, African marathoners griped about pollution in Beijing and a train on the route to the Olympic sailing venue in Qingdao flew off the tracks, killing 71 people.
But all those missteps paled in comparison to the calamity that was to come May 12, when a devastating earthquake struck China's Sichuan province, killing more than 65,000 people.
"This has been a tough year for the industry," says Pon de Dios, the chief media buyer in China for Proctor & Gamble. "A year of interruptions, not just for advertising but also in programming."
As China sorts through the wreckage, the tragedy has presented a unique challenge to advertisers in the region. Marketing messages are requiring adjustments in tone at a time when brands would be plotting a very different strategy in anticipation of the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Advertising and entertainment content was yanked for three days of mourning beginning May 19. The torch relay -- which by then had summited Mount Everest -- came to a halt.
Suddenly, the world's largest TV audience could get news only on China Central Television, nothing else. Chinese Web sites such as TuDou and YouKu dropped most non-quake footage. Karaoke parlors and online gaming halls went quiet; cinemas went dark.
All corporate brands faded from the airwaves in unison with Chinese companies. P&G pulled its "Keep China Smiling" campaign for Crest toothpaste and Coke scaled back all its marketing activities.
"It was not appropriate to run celebratory advertisements," says Petro Kacur, a senior manager for communications at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta.
The company quickly donated $2.9 million and 5.7 million bottles of product, including water. Further donations flooded in from around the world; state media reported $2.2 billion was amassed in 10 days.
Companies began outdoing one another: P&G gave $145,000 in the first 24 hours, followed by $2.2 million in products donated to the millions left homeless. Disney pledged $1 million, and Hong Kong media mogul Run Run Shaw gave $15 million.
Emotions ran high, reviving a nationalist fervor that in April pushed some Chinese to boycott a French film festival and retail giant Carrefour in retaliation for the assault on a wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete bearing the Olympic torch through Paris.
Anonymous text messages reminded tens of millions of Chinese mobile phone users of the names of the Fortune 500 multinationals, pejoratively dubbed "Iron Roosters," that had made millions in China but hadn't donated -- or donated enough -- to the relief effort.
Companies including Nokia, Samsung and McDonald's were dragged through the post-quake mud and just as quickly rehabilitated -- again by anonymous text messages -- after releasing statements about their contributions.
Bao Shuming, research director of the China Data Center at the University of Michigan, says that on the Internet in China, a small number of people can make a lot of noise.
"Companies must now be very low key," Bao says, adding that, if handled right, the quake presents "an excellent advertising opportunity."
The Shanghai office of U.S. ad giant JWT might be among the first to see its creative handiwork strike the right post-quake chord.
JWT Greater China CEO Tom Doctoroff says he hopes that his company's TV spot for Chinese sportswear company Anta -- a rival of former JWT China client Nike -- will tread the fine line between respect for quake victims and the need to return to the run-up to the Olympics.
"The Challenges are hard to conquer?" reads the big red Chinese characters superimposed on images of athletes preparing for competition. "Chinese People, let's fight for our pride. Let being strong forge into our dignity. Be proud of China!"
Music swells, javelins hurl, sprinters burst off the starting line, sweat flies. "Anta. Keep moving," the ad ends, on a line that could have been -- but wasn't -- written for quake survivors, Doctoroff says.
"There's a new civil spirit in China," he adds. "Though there were calls for canceling the torch run altogether, Coke now has the opportunity to morph the relay from an off-putting victory lap to a much more inspired call for perseverance."
But making money in the wake of disaster is a sensitive business.
Days after the quake, Chinese media Web site Danwei.org posted a CCTV ad rate card somebody had passed to its staff. The card's prices ranged from 350,000 yuan ($50,000) for five seconds of airtime up to 1.2 million yuan ($170,000) for a 30-second "Earthquake Rescue PSA + Company-Specific Earthquake Rescue-Themed Corporate Brand Identity Advertisement." The card recommended the theme "Earthquake Rescue, Unity of Will Forms a Stronghold."
Media buyers with close relationships with CCTV said a comparison of the post-quake rates with recent primetime rates was irrelevant. The statecaster had abandoned the new schedule, they said; but they would not deny that it appeared that somebody at CCTV had been thinking like a capitalist.
As focus shifts from the rebuilding in Sichuan back to the Olympics in Beijing now just two months away, Coca-Cola might have gotten as lucky a promotional break as one could ask for. It rose, literally, from the rubble of disaster.
Xue Xiao, a student rescued from his collapsed school after four days without food or water, said, lying on a stretcher, live on CCTV for the nation to hear: "Please, I need Coke. Iced Coke." (Heated Internet debates ensued about whether Coca-Cola should pay him for the free publicity.)
Since the end of the official mourning, Chinese TV has crept back toward normal -- whatever that means in a country where regulators and the flagship broadcaster were able to commandeer all media for 72 hours without any protest from any quarter.
Advertisements, too, are bound to come back, if slowly, as people ready for 5 million visitors -- and customers -- from around the world to land at the Beijing International Airport for the games.