A review of Tending to the “Flower of Capitalism”: Consuming, Producing and Censoring Advertising in South Korea of the ‘00s, by Olga Fedorenko.
Olga Fedorenko’s dissertation is remarkable, first and foremost, in its powerful explicating of a part of the everyday in late capitalism that is simultaneously maddeningly unavoidable and mysterious: advertising. It is unavoidable as it calls to us from the corners of our computer screens or the sides of highways, and mysterious in its banal inscrutability (who hasn’t feared being brainwashed by an advertisement?) Many of us who work in South Korea would classify that society as “advanced” in the advertising department, and one only has to look to online news sites any given week to find articles about rampant Korean consumption (of pop culture, handbags, private education, beauty and cosmetics, etc.) Yet, despite Korea frequently being touted as a consumer’s paradise, South Korean consumers are no less ambivalent about advertising than consumers anywhere else. Advertising can induce fatigue or outrage for one consumer at the same time it invokes feelings of familiarity or intimacy in another. Through her ethnographic treatment of the South Korean advertising industry in the 2000s, Fedorenko strikes a skillful balance, neither rendering all “advertising publics” the same across national borders nor singling out South Korean advertising practices as different and exotic. Instead, she deftly follows interconnections between advertising production and consumption on the one hand, and capitalism and democracy on the other. Fedorenko shows how South Korean advertising is both a product of South Korea’s particular historical trajectory and its visions of the future, making it an ideal topic for exploration using ethnographic methods. The dissertation begins with an overview of the social field of Korean mass media (Chapter 1) and continues to a discussion of Korean “advertising publics” (Chapter 2) before moving into more directly ethnographic chapters, on the advertising review process (Chapter 3), work in an advertising agency (Chapter 4) and the Advertising Museum in Seoul (Chapter 5).
In the dissertation’s clear and eloquent introduction, Fedorenko begins by delving into a turn of phrase used in the South Korean advertising industry: that advertising is “the flower of capitalism.” The author describes her initial discomfort with this expression and the decoupling it performs of advertising and capitalism, but she notes that over the course of her fieldwork she came to believe that this stressing of advertising as natural kept it in the realm of public life. Noting the lack of difference in terminology between commercial ads and public ads (with all ads being kwanggo, whereas in North America there is a separation between commercial ads and public service announcements), Fedorenko argues that holding commercial advertising to a public advertising ideal opens advertising to “public scrutiny and [makes it] answerable to popular demands” (p. 4). Examining advertising as a social reality rather than an object, she draws on Michael Warner’s notion of media publics and counter-publics, Wolfgang Haug’s discussion of commodity aesthetics, and Slavoj Žižek’s work on ideology to explore tensions between advertising as capital, and humanist impulses or “capitalist realism.”
After duly setting up the strong foundation of theory, background, and methods in the introduction, Chapter 1 begins with the intriguing case of an advertisers’ boycott by online consumer rights group Ŏnsoju in the 2000s, linking this case to other examples of “advertising suppression” that have shaped both public attitudes toward advertising and advertisers’ practices. The first case was the infamous “white paper” (paekchi) incident of 1975, in which the authoritarian Park Chung-hee administration ordered advertising to be pulled from the newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, on the grounds that it was criticizing the regime. Once advertising had slowed to enough of a trickle to leave several pages of the paper blank (hence, the “white paper incident”), sympathetic readers and businesses paid for “encouragement ads.” Though the Dong-A Ilbo eventually gave in to political pressure, this incident set the tone for ideals for advertising in South Korea in years to come. The second case, detailed more briefly, was the aforementioned Ŏnsoju’s criticisms of ChoJoonDong (the abbreviation of the three conservative-leaning newspapers, the Choson Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo) over the 2008 anti-U.S. beef protests. Fedorenko ends this first chapter by expanding on the ethnographic vignette that opened the chapter, describing the case of Ŏnsoju expanding their critique to a general boycott of advertisers who advertise in ChoJoonDong but not more left-leaning newspapers. The boycott began as an attack on the conglomerate Samsung for not advertising in the Hankyoreh paper after the paper reported on Samsung’s slush fund scandal, but spread to a general critique of the relation of advertising to power. The picture that emerges from this clear chapter is one of a social context in which advertising is never outside capital, but is still called upon by watchful “advertising publics” to uphold the public interest.
In Chapter 2, Fedorenko expands on the concept of “advertising publics” (which she has developed from Michael Warner’s “media publics”), illustrating how those who are affected by advertising include those who actively engage with it as well as those who do not. This category of advertising public is informed by sociologist Choi Jang Jip’s writings on the development of Korean civil society since democratization in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which “good for the people” became equated with “good for the consumer.” The core of this chapter is the KT (Korea Telecom) “olleh” campaign, an example that engages both the audience and consumer advocacy group sides of “advertising public,” in line with Richard Wilk’s (2002) declaration that consuming and discussing are two sides of the same process (p. 95). The “KT olleh” campaign will go down in the advertising history books as a campaign that responded to consumer complaints of its sexism and took its subsequent ads in a socially progressive direction. A central claim of the dissertation is contained in this chapter: “It is with such campaigns that advertising realizes its ‘capitalist realism’ designation, offering an inspiring societal ideal to strive towards. It transcends its immediate application as a discourse about commodities and becomes an articulation of a social utopia where productivity of capitalism can be achieved without capitalist contradictions” (p. 103).
Ethnography comes into the foreground in Chapter 3, which delves into the implications when advertising publics are also advertising censors. Fedorenko analyzes deliberations over three advertisements that came before the censorship committee, in which she was able to participate as an observer. The three ads at the center of these ethnographic episodes prompted discussions over subtle sexual messages (Hyundai’s “Sexy Utility Vehicle,” the Tucson IX), truth in advertising (Dr. Dirt Cleaning Spray), and how much credit to give to consumers (in the case of an unnamed donut chain). While the collaborative definitions the censorship committee came up with for sexual morality, truth/lies in advertising, and smart vs. gullible consumers are fascinating in and of themselves, the truly intriguing aspect of the chapter is the relationship between the “smart consumer” assumed by several of the censors, and evaluations of social responsibility at the national level. This section brought to mind Benedict Anderson’s work on “specters of comparisons” between nations, with one’s own nation and culture seen as if through an “inverted telescope” in comparison with another national context (Benedict Anderson, The Specter of Comparisons. London and New York: Verso Press, 1998, p. 2). The comments of censorship committee members analyzed in this chapter touched several times on comparisons with the United States, which allegedly didn’t need regulation and would presumably self-regulate out of a better-developed sense of social responsibility (p. 137). This lamenting over lack of readiness for free speech in South Korea could cynically be seen as a strategy for censors to keep themselves employed, but the other piece here is the implication that since advertisers cannot be trusted to produce socially responsible advertising, and the censors can only do so much, South Korean consumers need to be “smart consumers” to a degree not necessary elsewhere. Here we again see the saturation of neoliberal logics in South Korea, putting the burden of consumer advocacy and vigilance on the consumer herself.
The focus of Chapter 4 shifts to the work of an advertising agency itself, and like the previous chapter, is ethnographically rich. While the censors featured in Chapter 3 were largely concerned with how much to trust the South Korean consumer with the images and messages of the advertisements put before them, the ad agency workers of Chapter 4 hold up “kind” (ch’akhan) advertising as an ideal. Ad agency workers walk a tightrope between producing this kind, public advertising-inflected ideal and keeping finicky, bottom-line seeking advertisers happy. Although in most cases profitable yet banal ads prevailed, many ad agency workers Fedorenko talked with lived for the chance of affecting a “humanist” turn in a commercial advertising campaign. This section recalls a claim of the first chapter, that watching a giant like Samsung or Hyundai put out a “humanist” ad is as rewarding as watching an evil villain in a fictional film turn good (pp. 102-103). And yet ironically, the humanist ads that tug at the heartstrings of viewers are more insidious, as they address a “smart consumer” who is supposed to be able to resist overidentifying with advertising, when citizens in societies invested in consumption tend to identify with advertising precisely because it becomes “a venue for supporting values and voicing opinions and expressing identities” (p. 104). Chapter 5 further reveals this contradiction, examining the mission of the Advertising Museum in Seoul to “reproduce [a] proactive advertising public” (p. 173). Fedorenko, after several visits to the museum and interviews with museum staff, finds that the museum “trains visitors to expect advertising to render a public service” (p. 194). Advertising publics must identify with advertising but also expect a lot from advertising, a psychological impasse that seems to illuminate the contradictions of capitalism. Fedorenko writes, “Humanist advertising promised the possibility of achieving a harmonious humanist society within capitalism, denying that the antagonisms to which humanism was the answer were generated by capitalism itself” (p. 197).
Olga Fedorenko’s research is fresh and timely, and she strikes an admirable balance between discourse analysis of public texts related to advertising and ethnography of an advertising agency and advertising review board. The project accomplishes the double intervention she lays out in her introduction, (1) illustrating how advertising connects economic and cultural realms, and (2) exploring how societal ideals are established in terms of engagement with advertising. This dissertation is a welcome addition to the literature on Korean media studies and consumption, and also contributes to the fields of Korean business culture and the ethnography of public institutions.
Department of Anthropology
University of Washington
Advertising-related public texts (advertising agency brochures, etc.)
The Advertising Museum (Seoul)
University of Toronto. 2012. 212 pp. Primary Advisor: Andre Schmid.
Image: Street scene with a billboard for Samsung phone in Seoul, 2010. Photograph by Olga Fedorenko.