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Humor in public service ads a refreshing, overdue improvement
2014-10-20
By Doug Young

I’M not a big fan of Chinese public service announcements (PSAs) due to their lack of creativity, but one such advertisement caught my attention this week while I was exercising at the gym. I normally don’t watch the TV very closely as I ride on my exercise bike, and was paying little attention to the cute but clichéd pandas that appeared on the screen during my routine.

But then I noticed these particular pandas were doing some strange things while walking around a Western-looking landscape. I quickly realized the common theme was their boorish behavior, as they pushed other people out of the way to take photos and carelessly threw their trash onto city streets.

I later found the ad on Youku, China’s equivalent of Youtube, and discovered it was a PSA aimed at promoting better behavior among China’s legions of new overseas tourists. These kinds of PSAs have a long history in China, and I’ve learned to largely ignore them over the years due to their lack of creativity and also propagandistic overtones.

But this new panda-themed PSA, with its light-hearted humorous approach, was a refreshing change that not only caught my attention but even prompted me to go home and look for the ad online. More broadly speaking, the message marks not only a growing sophistication in China’s advertising industry, but also a refreshing use of lighter, self-deprecating humor to discuss issues in everyday life.

Such humor is common in the US and helps to relieve the stresses many of us encounter each day. But this kind of humor that lets people poke fun at their own shortcomings has been largely absent in the Chinese public dialogue for nearly all of the post 1949-era.

After watching it several times online, I determined the humorous PSA was set in Sydney, and consisted of a string of funny but quite realistic encounters between a boorish pair of panda travelers and local Australians. In one scene a panda finishes drinking a bottle of water and then carelessly throws it away in a spotless grassy park, drawing dismay and exasperation from a nearby local gardener.

Another scene features a couple of pandas walking around thoughtlessly slinging a large number of shopping bags, almost knocking over a local jogger. Yet another features pandas pushing local people out of the way so they can take a photo of themselves in front of Sydney’s famous Opera House. It ends with the lines “The world is watching us” and “Be a good panda.”

The PSAs are an obvious reaction to the steady stream of stories these days about poorly behaved Chinese tourists who do everything from letting their children urinate in public to smoking in places where it is clearly prohibited.

Among the many PSAs I’ve encountered in China, another one of my recent favorites is a radio ad that uses a similar funny approach to touch on the subject of materialism among many young people today. In the ad, we hear various sound bites from a girl who is dating a frugal boyfriend who does things like taking her out on dates on his bicycle and going to restaurants that offer discounted meals. At the end, she defends her boyfriend for his simple and honest nature, after a female friend implies she should dump the guy because of his stinginess.

Values of the time revealed

Historians watching these and other Chinese PSAs in the future will find a treasure trove of information about the values of the time, and also the social problems. These ads have a long tradition in China, and among my earliest memories from the 1980s are the family planning PSAs that were everywhere. They were mostly simple, bold and colorful, like many ads of that time, and proclaimed the glory of things like marrying late and having only one child.

The messages have become more varied and subtle in the last decade, though most PSAs are still a bit melodramatic for my taste. I quickly stop listening each time I hear a child’s voice in an ad proclaiming the beauty of respecting the elderly, and I tune out even more quickly whenever I hear the overly used catch phrase “the Chinese dream.”

One of my biggest complaints about Chinese TV and literature has always been the overuse of melodrama and other tricks designed to elicit strong emotional reactions from audiences. Humor is almost non-existent in such an environment, and on the few occasions when one does encounter funny material it’s almost always of the sarcastic, highly critical variety.

By comparison, the boorish panda and stingy boyfriend PSAs use a newer, more refreshing form of light-hearted humor that effectively delivers its message without being overly dramatic.

I’d like to give my personal kudos to the designers of the panda ad in particular, and hope we’ll see more of this kind of approach not only in PSAs but also in other areas like mainstream TV and literature.

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