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No Country For Mad Men: Advertising in North Korea

We are off to the DPRK to check out what advertising looks like in what is perhaps the most isolated market in the world.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Apr 24, 2013, 04.47 AM IST
A scenario where the government or rather the party is advertiser of the year, every year. Instead of consumer brands, it's the only brand on display.
A scenario where the government or rather the party is advertiser of the year, every year. Instead of consumer brands, it's the only brand on display.
North Korea has been at the centre of international attention ever since a regime change occasioned by the death of its self styled supreme leader Kim Jong Il. The world's been looking at the hermit kingdom with a strange mix of trepidation and amusement. Lazy American screenwriters have quickly made it the villain du jour in films like Red Dawn (in which the North Koreans were apparently shipped in at the last minute to replace the Chinese who represent a lucrative market for Hollywood) and more recently Olympus Has Fallen. And sure enough, even as the bombs went off at Boston last week, many of the more moronic American commentators on Twitter immediately concluded that life had started imitating art (if something like Olympus... qualifies as art that is).

However, sabre rattling and threats of unleashing nuclear decimation notwithstanding, it appears to be business as usual in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with its citizens performing a massdance routine for founding father Kim-II Sung's birthday bash last week. All of which got us thinking : if this is what passes off for entertainment, what about advertising? How does this most essential driver of capitalism work in the DPRK? The short answer after trawling through the internet is it doesn't ; at least not in the way that we know it.

Ever wondered what telly would be like if commercial breaks vanished entirely or were indistinguishable from some of the most banal programming? What modern cities would be without the cloak of billboards and neon signs? Or the sort of life you'd lead without the potent and often subliminal influence of advertising ? The next time a discussion about North Korea pops up, a very likely eventuality at the moment, spare a thought for a world without billboards screaming at you, without posters of photoshopped young men and women urging you to buy cars and clothes and everything in between. No signs distracting you with the likes of Beckham and Bundchen in their skimpy skivvies. No fast food giants tempting you to bite or cola makers telling you to be happy.

Instead get ready for a scenario where the government or rather the party is advertiser of the year, every year. Instead of consumer brands, it's the only brand on display. The scarlet posters scattered across cities are state campaigns — 'Let's open up an era to a strong economic country' and 'Let's uphold the military first revolutionary leadership of the great comrade Kim Jong-Un with loyalty' , are just a few examples . Other propaganda bills revolve around larger, global themes. For instance, the annihilation of evil capitalistic forces is always a popular one and inspires some of the most creative art work and copy.

In the endless sea of propaganda bills though, there's also the rare commercial billboard, from one of the country's only advertisers, Pyeonghwa Motors . Now defunct, the company was a joint-venture (founded in 1999) between Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church from South Korea and Ryonbong General Corporation, the state-owned North Korean company. The bills featured cars against scenic backdrops and doves flying overhead, occasionally accompanied by pictures of a fist-pumping comrade. It was also the subject of a seven minute long commercial that spoke in breathless excitement about advanced features like a built in tape deck.

The first and only commercial for beer in North Korea aired on state television, KCTV is not much better. It's a three-minute long video, completely devoid of lederhosen, of course. It shows a thirsty, very sweaty man enjoying the grog served up by a female comrade in traditional garb. The ad comes with a soundtrack and video graphics which ought to air with prior viewer warnings. It's very informative, nevertheless, enough critical nutritional data to fill multiple spreadsheets, generously sprinkled with moving images of seas and sunsets, dancing fountains , froth and factory floors. If that's not enough to drive even the staunchest teetotaller to the nearest dive, then, quite frankly, we've lost all faith in the power of advertising. So the next time you happen to be in that neighbourhood try some Taedonggang Beer, we've heard it's the "Pride of Pyongyang.”

But how do you get there, you ask? Well, catching one of the Korean Friendship Association's commercials is a good place to start. This rather strange video features images of the state-owned national carrier, a bus, Pyongyang airport, cemented roads, fallen comrades immortalised in stone, the parliament, water parks and a busload of visitors soaking it all in. There was also a print ad inviting foreigners to explore "Asia's Best Kept Secret - Vacation in North Korea" that appeared in foreign publications.

And that's about it. There are entire websites like devoted to Japanese advertising or rather the subset of ads that Hollywood celebrities star in. The showreels of South Korean agencies like Cheil and Innocean grow bigger and robust every year. But this handful of ads appears to be the sum total of advertising from the DPRK.

But is an adless state, such a strange notion, really? After all, we live in an age where ads are perceived as more a source of interruption than information and we choose to skip, TiVo and move on to regular programming or content at the first opportunity. So perhaps, the DPRK was the first to hit on something that the rest of the world has just latched on to? If you believe that, you probably also believe the article on North Korea's young supreme leader being named the sexiest man alive.

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