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Telling people stories
By Li Anlan

The soft sell is often more effective than the hard sell, as most people know, and Chinese advertisers increasingly are turning to kinder, gentler, human-interest story ads to send important social messages and burnish their own image.

Public service advertisements, too, are becoming more humanized and story-oriented, whether about the environment or health, education, volunteering - just about anything.

Typical public service ads used to be straightforward, sending messages like stop smoking, don't litter, stand in line, protect the environment or help your neighbor. Government ads promote a city's image.

But storytelling ads - ads that don't preach - are proving more effective both in conveying beneficial ideas and promoting positive corporate images. These human-interest ads tell people stories, sometimes about a very specific topic. Not putting sharp objects in the trash is an example.

These public service ads are more like micro films; they tend to be better received and remembered than the in-your-face style that is typically repetitive.

Kitty Lun, chairwoman and CEO of Lowe China, is called the "mother of public service advertising" in Hong Kong. She says it is important to let the target audience be part of the story.

"Don't just narrate, which lacks imagination, search for the most powerful and emotional point for the target audience," Lun said at a forum recently held by Shanghai Media Group about public service advertising.

According to Lun, creating public service ads is like any other advertising. Typical mistakes are overdramatizing, preaching and being too repetitive, which wastes time, energy and money. And messages made this way are more likely to be dismissed by an annoyed viewer.

Adopting a different approach, Shanghai Media Group, cooperating with White Rabbit candy, recently started a series of public service ads to encourage people to volunteer for worthy causes, thereby enhancing both companies' image as a contributor to the community.

"Happy Volunteering" contains three short ads of 30 seconds each, showing both the working and volunteering lives of the volunteers. In one ad, a young professional woman explains films to people in her community who are visually impaired. In another, a young doodler teaches children to draw in a community school. The third promotes the city of Shanghai.

Liu Yingyuan, general planner of "Happy Volunteering," says the purpose is to engage viewers, encourage volunteering and clear up misunderstanding, such as the notion that volunteers just pass out fliers or pick up litter once in a while.

"We picked examples showing people help others with their skills," Liu says.

In these ads, a split screen shows a person both working and volunteering. The style is easy and friendly. "Using slogans and catch phrases no longer works in the current situation and language context," Liu says.

Stories come from real experiences and professional actors play the role of volunteers. Many other public service ads use celebrities in hopes of getting more attention - famously Yao Ming speaking out against eating shark's fin soup.

Gao Yizhe, producer of "Happy Volunteering," says celebrities may be used in the future.

Alipay, an affiliate of Alibaba Group, is a popular third-party online payment system in China. In 2011, Alipay wanted to promote its core values of trustworthiness and be a guarantor. It decided on public service-like advertisements emphasizing optimism, community spirit and dependability, according to Liu Feng of Alipay's marketing department.

One advertisement titled "Yaoshi Ayi," or "Aunt of Keys" tells the real story of a woman named Xu Qinxiu who keeps house keys for neighbors in her community in Changzhou of Jiangsu Province. It reflects trust between people, and the three-minute video about the kind key lady has been viewed by tens of thousands of people on the Internet and given positive reviews.

Telling a people story is more effective than telling people to do the right thing. When people can identify and see themselves in the public service ads, those efforts to persuade are more effective than a moralistic, dogmatic approach.

For commercial brands, investing in public service ads is also a way to promote a good corporate image. In "Yaoshi Ayi," a collaboration with the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Alipay as a brand didn't appear in the story at all. Only at the end did a message appear, saying the story was brought to viewers by Alipay.

"In telling a story, we would not include any reference to Alipay but would emphasize passing on ideas," says Liu from the Alipay marketing department. "That's because we think the power of real stories is better suited to a branding campaign."

True. In "Happy Volunteering," the first 25 seconds of each 30-second episode also contain no White Rabbit reference, only in the last five seconds is the brand mentioned.

"They (White Rabbit) first decide on a topic (such as volunteering) and together we discuss themes and story ideas," says Gao, the producer.

These public service commercials don't preach, they are refreshingly non-didactic and memorable because of touching stories that viewers identify with. Brands that make these advertisements promote both a good cause and their own image.

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