Modern advertising is designed to convince otherwise sensible people to want products and services they don’t need; essential items, after all, sell themselves with little or no marketing. Successful advertising techniques construct an imagined world of glamour, luxury and social status that – much like the fantasy realm of cinema – can be accessed by the simple expedient of having enough money to pay the entry fee.
Advertising saturates our daily lives. Neon signs, roadside hoardings, posters on public transport, fliers, information traded from internet searches, magazine-style newspaper colour supplements where the editorial content offers only the thinnest anchor for the adverts that paid for it in the first place – the list of media that exhort us to purchase this, do that, or become the other is never ending.
Campaigns often play on socioeconomic insecurities and – yes – ethnic and national inferiority complexes. European “princesses” in fairy-tale castles touting products destined squarely for the Chinese market make this point clear.
In this sense, Hong Kong’s rampant embrace of Western consumerism is ultimately a form of cultural Americanisation – or a focus-group concocted entrée to a carefully coiffed and manicured, faux-French or fantasy-Italian lifestyle. Local property advertising takes this approach to its ultimate extreme.
But what form did local advertising take in the past? And how has technological progress transformed it?
Nineteenth- and early 20th-century streetscape photography provides insights into nascent Hong Kong advertising. Painted-cloth banners hung from poles, changing with the time of year and the goods on offer, were the most common advertisements. “New supply of black vinegar, sourced direct from Central China”, “First hairy crabs of the season”, “Most efficient ointment for piles” ran the straightforward descriptions.
Following the first world war, brightly coloured posters became widespread in China’s Westernised port cities, from there moving inland across the country. Along with obvious imitations, indigenous variations of art deco, Bauhaus, modernist and other contemporary styles developed during the Nationalist period that dramatically influenced graphic design for Chinese characters. Commercial and graphic art burgeoned as costs for paper, paints and dyes steadily fell. With rotogravure printing processes advancing and production costs dropping dramatically, by the early 1930s, brightly coloured advertisements had appeared for a wide variety of consumer goods.
All these graphic designs had a compelling lifestyle component. Fabrics, kerosene, matches, cosmetics, electrical appliances – all were enthusiastically marketed. The most popular adverts were by tobacco companies, using saturation marketing techniques via posters, newspapers and magazines to push their addictive products.
The economic power of such marketing exercises should not be underestimated; if a newspaper or magazine derived significant revenue from advertisers selling a particular product, then any negative coverage for that product – or the company that hawked it – was likely to be downplayed or ignored completely. Tobacco offers a prime example.
During the interwar years, romantically idealised, kaleidoscopic visions of Shanghai glamour appeared in advertising across the overseas Chinese world. From Penang to Honolulu, poster and magazine adverts helped create a lifestyle illusion for those who – in the days before mass travel – would probably never have the opportunity to explore that city’s frequently unlovely realities for themselves. From the early 50s, Hong Kong took on the role once enjoyed by Shanghai as cultural beacon for the Chinese diaspora; one it retained until, in recent years, the city’s once-unique brand of starlight began to fade with the rise of China’s social, political and cultural influence.