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The Korean Ad Industry’s Celebrity Obsession


If you’ve spent any significant length of time in Korea, then you’ll have noticed the same celebrity faces in ads time and time again. Whether it’s Kim Tae-hee, Girls’ Generation, Gong Yoo, or 2PM, you just can’t escape them. Be it ads on public transportation, billboards or on TV, they’re seemingly everywhere you turn.

In fact, roughly two-thirds of Korean ads have celebrities, as opposed to 10% in most other developed countries. And it’s been like that for over a decade. Redundancy seems to be the rule when it comes to advertising. But is this an entirely negative thing? Not necessarily.

Many Koreans are just as tired of seeing the same celebrities everywhere. Also, it’s easy to see how an over-reliance on them would stifle creativity in the Korean advertising industry. In the words of Bruce Haines, the current and first foreign president of Korea’s largest advertising agency, Cheil Worldwide, It’s holding back the reputation of Korean advertising overseas, and that in its crudest form, Korean advertising degenerates to beautiful people holding a bottle.

On the other hand, endorsements by Girls’ Generation, the most prolific of the lot, have generally resulted in huge sales increases for the companies that hire them. After they advertised Woongjin Conway water purifiers in April 2011, for instance, sales rose 400% compared to the same period a year earlier. Likewise, Manchester United partner Shinhan Bank has managed to sell over a million credit cards with Park Ji-sung’s face emblazoned on them.

What’s more, these huge successes are not necessarily due to anything unique in the Korean psyche, no matter how natural it may be to assume so. Rather, using celebrities works because it exploits two universal, interrelated human instincts—that we have a natural inclination to associate in groups; and that, to aid in this, we generally trust the opinions of people that we feel are similar to us, and/or that we know well. Whether we’ve met them in person, or only know them from TV.

Consider the effects this has on our decision making with a practical example.

Back when I first joined Facebook, I soon got addicted to ‘friending’ new people. If they were women, and if they were hot, then, well, I couldn’t click fast enough. But then one day, I suddenly realized that I’d actually clicked on one woman’s profile mostly because her birthday was close to mine. Two other recommendations had been equally attractive, but I’d ignored them because theirs weren’t.

And once I checked, it turned out a disproportionate number of my new ‘friends’ likewise had birthdays in March. Was that due to Facebook deliberately recommending fellow Pisceans to me, or was that due to my own self-selection? I can’t say. But either way, what was happening sounds a lot like a phenomenon known as basking in reflected glory, as described by author Jake Halpern in his 2006 book Fame Junkies:

…In [a] study, students—there were several hundred of them—read a short biography of Rasputin… you know, the villain of Russian history. For half of them they customized the tests so that Rasputin had the same birthday as you—without you knowing. So you’re like… imagine that your actual birthday is July 28th, so Rasputin is born July 28th… whenever. So [students] that had the same birthday as Rasputin were, across the board, more likely to say Rasputin was a misunderstood man in history. He was notorious but he was great and he played an important role, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. And this is just because they share a birthday!

Halpern was speaking in the UK documovie Starsuckers (2009), in which the narrator then went on to comment: “The power of association, with someone who’s famous or even infamous, is far more potent than we even realize.”

In other words, if we’re all more likely to pay attention to someone simply because they’re born at the same time as us, then it to stands to reason that our favorite celebrity’s endorsement of a product would carry much more weight than that of an anonymous model or actor.

This also explains the abundance of making of videos here in Korea, too—they’re a means of persuading viewers that celebrities are just like us, to encourage us to make associations with them in our minds. After all, why else would companies willingly ruin the fantasies they’ve tried to create in their expensive commercials? Or present celebrities in such unglamorous situations as getting food all over their faces while slurping noodles, or running for the bathroom?

Heck, it’s no wonder that Koreans generally don’t hold celebrities on a pedestal, and will often judge them severely for even the slightest of misdemeanors.

So next time you sigh at seeing a familiar face in a Korean ad, consider the fact that they’re probably the reason you’re paying any attention to it at all. Ultimately, the question may not be why Korean advertisers use celebrities so much, but rather why Western advertisers don’t!


James Turnbull’s popular blog, The Grand Narrative, discusses Korean sociology through gender, advertising, and popular culture, and has become one of the leading Internet sources on those topics, with mentions in Time Magazine, The Washington Post and Jezebel.

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