NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It has only gone from bad to worse in China this spring.
Protesters from London to Paris to San Francisco dogged the Coca-Cola-sponsored Olympic torch relay to shout down China’s rule of Tibet. Mia Farrow lambasted China’s trade with Sudan, and Steven Spielberg quit his advisory role to the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony in Beijing on August 8.
Shortly after that, African marathoners griped about pollution in Beijing and a train on the route to the Olympic sailing venue in Tianjin flew off the tracks, killing 71 people.
But they all paled against the calamity that was to come May 12, when an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province, killing more than 68,500 people to date.
The tragedy has presented a unique challenge to advertisers in the region. Marketing messages are requiring adjustments in tone at a time when brands should be plotting a very different strategy.
Advertising and entertainment content was yanked for three days of mourning beginning May 19. The torch relay -- which by then had summited Mount Everest -- came to a halt.
Chinese Web sites such as TuDou and YouKu dropped most non-quake footage. Karaoke parlors and online gaming halls went quiet; cinemas went dark.
All corporate brands faded from the airwaves in unison with Chinese companies. Procter & Gamble pulled its “Keep China Smiling” campaign for Crest toothpaste, and Coke scaled back all its marketing activities.
“It was not appropriate to run celebratory advertisements,” says Petro Kacur, a senior manager for communications at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta.
The company quickly donated $2.9 million and 5.7 million bottles of product, including water. Further donations flooded in from around the world; state media reported $2.2 billion was amassed in 10 days.
Companies began outdoing one another: P&G gave $145,000 in the first 24 hours, followed by $2.2 million in products donated to the millions left homeless. Disney pledged $1 million, and Hong Kong media mogul Run Run Shaw gave $15 million.
Emotions ran high, reviving a nationalist fervor that in April pushed some Chinese to boycott a French film festival and retail giant Carrefour in retaliation for the assault on a wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete bearing the Olympic torch through Paris.
Anonymous text messages reminded tens of millions of Chinese mobile phone users of the names of the Fortune 500 multinationals, pejoratively dubbed “Iron Roosters,” that had made millions in China but hadn’t donated -- or donated enough -- to the relief effort.
Companies including Nokia, Samsung and McDonald’s were dragged through the post-quake mud and just as quickly rehabilitated -- again by anonymous text messages -- after releasing statements about their contributions.
Bao Shuming, research director of the China Data Center at the University of Michigan, says that on the Internet in China, a small number of people can make a lot of noise.
“Companies must now be very low key,” Bao says, adding that, if handled right, the quake presents “an excellent advertising opportunity.”
The Shanghai office of U.S. ad giant JWT might be among the first to see its creative handiwork strike the right post-quake chord.
JWT Greater China CEO Tom Doctoroff says he hopes that his company’s TV spot for Chinese sportswear company Anta -- a rival of former JWT China client Nike -- will tread the fine line between respect for quake victims and the need to return to the run-up to the Olympics.
“The Challenges are hard to conquer?” reads the big red Chinese characters superimposed on images of athletes preparing for competition. “Chinese People, let’s fight for our pride. Let being strong forge into our dignity. Be proud of China!”
Music swells, javelins hurl, sprinters burst off the starting line, sweat flies. “Anta. Keep moving,” the ad ends, on a line that could have been -- but wasn’t -- written for quake survivors, Doctoroff says.
“There’s a new civil spirit in China,” he adds. “Though there were calls for canceling the torch run altogether, Coke now has the opportunity to morph the relay from an off-putting victory lap to a much more inspired call for perseverance.”
As focus shifts from the rebuilding in Sichuan back to the Olympics in Beijing now just two months away, Coca-Cola might have gotten as lucky a promotional break as one could ask for. It rose, literally, from the rubble of disaster.
Xue Xiao, a student rescued from his collapsed school after four days without food or water, said, lying on a stretcher, live on CCTV for the nation to hear: “Please, I need Coke. Iced Coke.” (Heated Internet debates ensued about whether Coca-Cola should pay him for the free publicity.)
Since the end of the official mourning, Chinese TV has crept back toward normal -- whatever that means in a country where regulators and the flagship broadcaster were able to commandeer all media for 72 hours without any protest from any quarter. Advertisements, too, are bound to come back, if slowly, as the games take center stage.