The verdict on the Chinese New Year ads of 2019: ‘Why is fun such a rare commodity?’

The ads for Chinese New Year certainly meet their marketing objectives, irrespective of what the critics say, but they are still missing a trick or two – argues Ai.agency's Dave McCaughan

Is it me or does the passing of big seasonal celebrations bring both disappointment and relief? I love the festivities, the food and mood, but don’t really want it to go on all the time.

A bit like the advertising of the season. It has become part of Christmas, Ramadan and Chinese New Year to look forward to what brands can do. But I am sure we don’t really want that all the time.

Like the season itself they are too full of emotion, formality and an expectation to be great all the time. Now I know many readers of Mumbrella like to heckle the paucity of originality in CNY advertising. Every year, we hear: “Where is the John Lewis of Asia?”

And yet, when I am judging effectiveness awards around the region, I see a lot of strong cases around CNY campaigns. Which may tell us something about what brands actually want from seasonal celebrations.

In my experience, it boils down to three things:

  1.     To take advantage of the season to boost sales and/or market share.
  2.     To use a seasonal insight to change perception of the role of the brand.
  3.      To be seen as part of a special time in people’s lives.

You can try and do all three. Or focus on getting just one right. You could argue that the Caltex’s Lucky Break effort this year did just that with the first objective.

Of all the CNY work I saw this year, the lead character Chin Peng was my favourite. A nice funny little story about a man who is a bit of a loser and for whom CNY is just another time to be reminded he is not going anywhere.

The ‘surprise’ ending, with him winning a lottery, was more crass than we expected it to be. Hence all the ‘way to commercialise CNY’ comments on YouTube. That, incidentally, was my first reaction too: slapping on a promotion as a conclusion was too much.

But then I realised this was just the outcome I’d have hoped for, if I was planning the campaign. Get people to notice, make them take a different look at the celebration, create a character they can warm up to and then suck them in. Is that bad? Well it got us talking.

And I still like the first 90% of the film. I went back, watched it again and smiled at Chin Peng’s woes. And I still remember Caltex. So maybe job done?

Back in 2017, Snickers did a great job meeting objective number two — using seasonal insights to change the role or perception of the brand. They figured out the obvious: Getting to and from family celebrations was a nightmare for Chinese travellers. They had the insight that all those delays and frustrations meant you got hungry.

So, they cleverly combined with China Eastern Airlines and focused on making the brand the easy “take with you” necessity. And in doing so, they shifted the chocolate’s seasonal connection from being a gift where they could not compete to a new category focused on travel eating.

Maybe that is what Pepsi was trying to do with its spaceship story in China.

Or maybe I got it wrong and it was all about sharing national pride? The official drink of China’s future? Nah, it just did not work.

Maybe that is what Singtel intended with its story of three kids off to university in Australia.

The classic telco messaging: Distances are less than you think. So, use CNY to remind the marketplace that even though we can’t all be with family – in some little way, we actually can.

Is it creating a new segment? No. Is it reminding the market of an important segment that is part of ongoing business? Yes. Not original and not creative, but a useful business need being fulfilled.

The secret to the third objective – being seen as part of a special time in people’s lives – is that being genuine matters. The more something seems like it is a real story or could be a real story, the more it delivers.

Our BS radars are getting increasingly sensitive. But that makes sense. After all, it is not just the readers of Mumbrella who have spent decades educating themselves about how advertising works. Campaigns like the one from RHB, which claims to be a ‘true’ story of world gaming champion Mushi come across as something you don’t mind spending time with.

Now, I had never heard of Mushi. I checked with my game-competing son who verified he was  real. And I don’t know if the story in the film is accurate. But in a fake news world, is anything? It certainly looked and sounded genuine.

And really that is what we want isn’t it? A feeling that we have entered someone else’s lives and can take away a good feeling. Isn’t that what we took out of John Lewis’ Elton John story?

CIMB with it’s ‘You-sang, We-sang’ is not making a pretence of being a real story.

In fact, they have gone the whole other route of creating a piece of content to be enjoyed for itself. A cute piece of made-up mythology that looks nice and is fun and has nothing to do with their business.

Just a tagline at the end to say “celebrations are perfect when done together”. That struck me as genuine in making no false claim, link or connection. It’s CNY, you are probably killing time browsing YouTube; here is a funny little story for you.

It’s that third objective I think we too often underestimate. Just being a part of the time and place, and not forcing things or overselling. Actually being a part of the community that you, as a brand, keep insisting that you are a part of.

I once had a client in China who told me that most important thing for CNY was not to be the weird uncle or the auntie who never stops kissing you. Rather instead to be the cousin you like to see, catch up with and feel comfortable having around for the day. He can sell you a car another day.

My one wish would be more pathways. If you take a random sample of thirty odd campaigns across the region the great majority hone in on over-emoting separation, departure, maudlin moments and memories. All relevant. But they all start to merge.

Daikin did a good job of making us think of family members we missed.

Although in writing this piece, I had to check my notes twice to remember it was Daikin and not one of a dozen other campaigns that might have got a tear going.

Maybe there should be more celebration. The Coke clay kids characters have been around in China for a long time (confession: I worked on their first iteration 16 or 17 years ago).

At least it has been and still is a vehicle for fun and smiles. Scour YouTube for CNY brand messages like I did, and you are going to find fun and laughing, and having a good time, is indeed a rare commodity.

What we see instead is timeless and constant themes. Not anything transforming or dynamic but universal elements like love, hope and the occasional moment of joy. Not to mention expectation.

Somehow all those millions of pieces of content across social media, websites, YouTube and the reactions to content left us expecting a bit more.

I could find some work I like because I was asked to give an opinion. Brands will no doubt have cases to say their work succeeded in reaching a desired objective. When yet another CNY rolls around, we will no doubt expect more once again.

Special seasons come and go and we like them, look forward to them and then hope the next one will maybe be even better. Good luck to all brands with that eternal goal. Happy Year of the Pig.

Dave McCaughan is Ai.agency’s chief strategy officer – he is based in Thailand and has spent more than 25 years in Asia as a strategy planner


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