Consider this sad, yet far from uncommon, local scenario. A bright, promising child attends kindergarten and primary school, where she learns to read and write. From “The cat sat on the mat” she progresses, over two decades, to William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, continues on to critiques of Percy Shelley, John Keats and the other Romantic poets, and then follows a university degree steeped in the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
Upon graduation, no worthy job materialises. As so many of Hong Kong’s annually expanding legions of under-employed, bitterly discontented graduates have discovered, they are forced to deploy their painstakingly acquired linguistic abilities on whatever drudgery pays the bills.
Copywriting provides a career opening for those equipped to ransack a thesaurus, and find the most pretentious words possible to describe otherwise simple, easy-to-market concepts or products. The trick is to make some product or service found anywhere from Dubai to Osaka feel “unique” to people in Hong Kong. The right form of words to marry up with glamorous, jealousy-inducing images, and the socially insecure need of many to “keep up with the Wongs” is essential to help sell inessential items in a market such as Hong Kong, where more than 20 per cent of the population exists below the poverty line.
“Luxury”, “prestige”, “flagship”, “bespoke”, “artisanal”, “unique features”, “enriching life’s defining moments” – the tawdry list of copywriter clichés trudges on, generally inserted by an “advertising executive” – or “brand manager” as they are termed today – desperate to put their mark on a project. Creating and sustaining a sense of improved status from the purchase of particular products is key to any advertising copywriter’s success. Even their own flannel has been “upgraded”; instead of “copywriting agencies”, Hong Kong now has “brand studios”.
“Shopping experience” is another Hong Kong copywriter’s staple. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or gazing across Iguazu Falls are life-enhancing experiences; traipsing aimlessly around an air-conditioned Kowloon mall cunningly designed – rather like a lobster trap – so that once an unfortunate victim enters, escape back into the real world is all but impossible without running the gauntlet of yet more shops, is a different “experience” altogether.
Was it always this way? Linguistic attempts to turn immediately discernible sow’s ears into eminently covetable silk purses have become painfully obvious in recent decades. Newspaper and magazine advertisements in the past generally focused on what a product or service actually did; the copywriter’s job was to expand in positive terms upon any measurable superiority one brand had over its rivals, with particular reference to recent technological innovations. Potential customers could discover what made Product A superior in quality and price from superficially identical Product B, and make an informed choice on that basis.
By the 1930s, however, this fact-based approach had shifted as American-influenced (and often, American-owned) advertising agencies opened up on the China coast, especially in Shanghai. Crass American money-worship, and the status-enhancing objects that abundant cash could buy reacted with newly affluent, culturally undiscerning treaty-port Chinese tastes like consumer-grade opium; the advertising-fuelled consumerist addiction multiplied exponentially in the decades that followed.
Emulation of perceived Western ideals was – and remains – a Chinese advertising hallmark; marketing campaigns for everything from bottled water to housing estates make this observation obvious. For Hong Kong consumers, any “foreign” flavour has always been more desirable than a domestic product; the craze for Japanese manufactures from the 70s onwards (as harsh memories of the Pacific war era faded), and the contemporary aping of anything South Korean, illustrates this unpalatable symptom of a cultural inferiority complex.