Wrong message worse than no message

Leaving them coldSome time ago, while looking through a Chinese newspaper published in Vancouver, I came across an advertisement that had been placed by a large mainstream company.It caught my attention, but for all the wrong reasons. I could not believe...

Leaving them cold

Some time ago, while looking through a Chinese newspaper published in Vancouver, I came across an advertisement that had been placed by a large mainstream company.

It caught my attention, but for all the wrong reasons. I could not believe how badly it was done, and how it would adversely affect the image of the brand name advertiser.

Important maxim

Seeing this ad reminded me of one of the most important maxims in the advertising industry: the wrong message to the right audience is worse than no message at all.

The fact is that a large percentage of new Chinese immigrants to Canada have high disposable incomes.

They are prospective clients for all kinds of luxury goods and brand name products as well as travel and financial services.

I recently learned that Chinese-Canadian customers make up about 40% of one luxury automobile dealership’s existing client base.

What is more, these immigrants are seasoned consumers and are accustomed to a sophisticated level of advertising in Hong Kong.

Sad to say, the majority of Canadian advertisers and agencies still have not realized the tremendous market potential of the Chinese Canadian community – let alone the importance of tailoring a campaign specifically suited to that market.

It is true that some major North American companies have slowly begun to recognize the potential of the Chinese immigrant market.

Specific budgets

However, few are committing specific advertising budgets to target this market. Maybe they do not know where to start, but it would be a shame for them to wait until one of their competitors has done successful marketing in this area before they wake up to the challenge.

When these big advertisers do come up with immigrant-directed ad campaigns, they seem to forget that they are dealing with readers who have distinct cultural differences, producing ads that are more often than not straight translations of the English-language version.

As a result, the ads that do get published often fail to convey a message their audience can relate to.

Here are three examples:

- Big advertisers placing ads with English-only text in Chinese community newspapers – or making the token gesture of translating the headlines into Chinese.

This seems to defeat the purpose of placing an ad in the Chinese media in the first place.

It can also be interpreted as an insult, suggesting that the advertiser knows the importance of the Chinese market but does not care enough to make the necessary effort to consider the cultural sensitivities of this group;

- I recently saw a cookware company trying to sell its products by giving out a ‘wok’ as a free gift during a Chinese New Year’s celebration.

At any other time of the year, this would have been appealing. However, ‘wok’ in Cantonese means something has gone wrong or that you are in big trouble;

- One large financial institution recently set up an Asian Banking department on the fourth floor of its office complex, not realizing that ‘four’ is a kind of taboo to Hong Kong people because in Cantonese it sounds like the word ‘death.’

It might be tempting to generalize that the Chinese – especially businesspeople – are superstitious when it comes to advertising and such things as ‘woks’ and ‘fourth’ floors.

But before jumping to conclusions, remember that cultural sensitivity is something that cuts both ways.

Asian advertisers trying to get their message across in a Western market would need to be equally aware of a number of cultural nuances.

It would be useful to know the unlucky connotations surrounding the number 13.

Likewise, they would not want to use a pig as part of a company or product logo when advertising in a heavily Jewish or Moslem market, and it would be inappropriate to hold a major sale on Easter Sunday just about anywhere in Europe or North America.

Being culturally sensitive is one way of ensuring that your message makes a positive impact.


If you concentrate on making your advertising warmer and closer to a specific group of readers you can maximize its receptiveness to your message.

The Hongkong Bank of Canada is one institution that has successfully pioneered marketing its services to the Chinese community – and, as a result, it has captured more than its share of new clients.

Last year, for example, our company created a multimedia Chinese-language campaign on behalf of the bank featuring the pearl and the maple leaf as symbols for Asia and Canada.

The headline, ‘Within the Pearl lies the Wisdom of the East,’ emphasizes the bank’s Asian connection as part of the global network of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

The text goes on to assure potential clients that the bank understands the expectations and needs of Chinese-Canadians.

The campaign has successfully strengthened the image of the bank in the Asian-Canadian community.


On the business side, the growth in the Chinese sector for the Hongkong Bank has been tremendous.

Given this kind of success, it is likely that the bank will commit an even greater share of its advertising dollars to targetted ad campaigns in the future.

I am convinced it is not too late for North American companies to get up to speed with advertising campaigns tailored to the Chinese immigrant community.

When you consider the fact that buying space or air time in the Chinese-language media is a lot less expensive than in the mainstream media, the results of a targetted low budget campaign can be fruitful.

But keep in mind that advertisers have to be not only creative but also culturally sensitive when approaching this market in order to get positive results.

Hong Kong-born Ken Koo is the president and creative director of Vancouver-based Ken Koo Creative Group. The firm recently founded an Asian Marketing Division.