Why Korean ads rely heavily on celebrities
By Kim Da-ye
Last year, when Toyota Motors tried to recapture the company’s former glory with the all-new 2012 Toyota Camry, the automotive maker aired a series of different commercials as part of its largest marketing campaign ever in the United States that cost an estimated $175 million.
Along with one in which American Idol singer Kelly Clarkson appeared, one ad showed a NASCAR racecar being reassembled into a Camry. In a Super Bowl commercial, Toyota showed not the mid-size sedan but numerous imaginary “reinventions” such as pepperoni pizza curtains, an audio-blender and a police officer masseuse.
On this side of the world in Korea, the strategy for an effective commercial was rather simple ― hiring Kim Tae-hee, often referred to as the country’s most beautiful actress. Kim was unusually provocative in the ad, with the camera focusing on her collarbone exposed by a revealing dress she wears and a moment when she sensually bites her lower lip. And that was about it.
“We hired Kim Tae-hee because her inner and external elegance and beauty matched the Camry’s dynamic functions and emotional design,” Toyota Korea said in a statement. “We are considering having Kim, a global celebrity, not only in commercials here but also in other Asian countries.”
At that time, Kim was in several other commercials including one for Namyang Dairy Products’ French Cafe instant coffee mix. In fact the hiring of the actress reflects a strong trend in the advertising industry ― a heavy reliance on “top models.”
Many Korean commercials feature celebrities and sports stars with the creme de la creme of the elite models appearing simultaneously in more than 10 ads.
Products are even linked to and named after celebrities either accidently by consumers or proactively by advertisers.
LG Electronics’ Whisen air conditioner, for example, is dubbed the “Son Yeon-jae air conditioner” after the rhythmic gymnast who promotes the product. Insurance plans for the elderly from LINA Korea, the Korean arm of global health insurer Cigna, are better known as “Lee Soon-jae insurance plans” because the actor endorses the company in television ads.
As the outlets for marketing and advertizing diversify to home shopping channels and online media, celebrities are increasingly used by various businesses.
Little known cosmetics producer Genic, for instance, hired middle-aged actor Ha Yoo-mi as a celebrity endorser of its facial mask. Ha’s appearance in home shopping channels and enthusiastic endorsements gave the skincare product a new name, the “Ha Yoo-mi pack,” causing many consumers to wrongly believe that the actress owned the business.
The facial mask was such a hit that the company went public on the KOSDAQ market last year.
OId statistics show that more than 40 percent of television commercials in Korea employ “top models,” compared to 25 percent in the U.S. By stark contrast, major Hollywood stars tend to shun appearing in commercials to maintain a neutral reputation.
Experts say that little has changed or in some cases the reliance on celebrities has become even more extreme in Korea.
Kim Sang-hoon, a professor of social sciences at Inha University, points to the structure of the advertisement industry as one of the major reasons.
Korean TV commercials tend to be short. Advertisements aired before programs start last quarter of a minute and those aired after programs end can be up to half a minute.
“In 15 seconds, companies have to communicate their message and get the ad memorized. Without star celebrities, it isn’t easy to get that done,” Kim said, adding that the public in general are very interested in big name entertainers.
Although agencies initially make longer commercials that are edited down and they tend to use techniques that can instantly grab the audience’s attention because some 70 percent of ads on TV are only 15-seonds-long.
Furthermore, Kyeong Won-sik, the general director of Korea CM Institute, an advertisement research center, said that the pool of models in Korea are, in fact, limited, leaving advertisers with only a few choices ― top celebrities.
“You may believe there are a million who can act in commercials. There are fewer than 100 models available to appear in ads,” Kyeong said.
In the U.S., talent agencies keep an extensive list of models for commercials and efficiently provide advertisers with several matches for auditions.
Ads with big models are also safe bets.
Commercials based on creative ideas may either succeed or fail while the appearance of reigning celebrities, to some extent guarantees effective sales campaigns.
Park Yong-moo, the director of HS Ad, formerly LG Ad, referred to the use of celebrities “a sort of insurance” in a discussion with other industry professionals in 2007.
The rare dialogue was published in the journal of the Korea Advertisers Association that raised the issue of the high fees advertisers had to pay celebrities despite the lack of any sincere interest in the products or the brands.
Park said that consumer demands and a herd mentality combined with advertisers and agencies' desire to make an impact in a short period of time led companies to utilize the “big model strategy.”
“When ideas are generated and produced into ads, the inclusion of a high profile model instantly limits creativity. In a 15-second commercial, there is no space for creativity to breathe because of the strong presence of the model’s image. But when the appearance of a big model guarantees achieving the basic requirements, it can comfort the mind,” Park said.
The lack of creativity prevalent in Korean ads isn’t really the advertisers’ concern. They have more tangible, cost-effectiveness-related issues to be concerned about.
The biggest downside is popular models’ tendency to appear in multiple advertisements simultaneously, diluting the influence of one commercial.
For instance, in May, figure skater Kim Yu-na, was advertizing Samsung Electronic’s Hauzen air conditioner, LG Household & Health care’s Saffron fabric softener, KB Financial Group, Maeil Dairies’ milk and Pure brand yogurt, Prospecs sportsware, Maxim White Gold instant coffee mix, Hite beer and E1 gas stations.
For Hite, Kim Yu-na faced a backlash from the public for advertizing alcohol despite being a role model for youth and a prominent Korean athlete.
In addition, a product’s association with celebrities may not help companies establish a brand identity in the long run, experts point out.
Kyeong said that in the case where products are nicknamed after celebrities, consumers tend to identify products with the model, not the brand itself.
With a few exceptions, Korean celebrities rise and fall within a short time frame, which means companies cannot stick with one model for too long.
Popular TV series constantly produce overnight celebrities who are determined to rake in as much money as possible from making commercials during their heyday.
However, scandals can damage the advertiser’s reputation ― think of Tiger Woods and how media coverage of his overly active sex life led companies to cancel product endorsement deals.
To avoid such fiascos, some advertising agencies collected information about the private lives of celebrities and rumors surrounding them.
In the mid-2000s, the wide circulation of the so-called “celebrity x-file” led talent agencies to sue Cheil Worldwide, an advertising affiliate of Samsung Group, for defamation.
All in all, celebrities wield too much power, which is best exemplified by their pay. Kim Yu-na is believed to earn some 1.2 billion won per commercial on average, a local tabloid reported.
Kim Sang-hoon, the Inha University professor, said that in 2007, advertisers tried to come up with standardized contracts that protected the rights of both advertisers and models. But little has changed since, he said.
“It isn’t just the advertisers’ fault. Consumers should also become rational and sensible when choosing products. Ads using a top model tend to appeal to emotions. Consumers should reflect on their excessive obsession with celebrities,” Kim said.