This Saturday marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat – the first animal in the Chinese zodiac cycle and an uncharacteristically long ‘year’, just two weeks shy of 13 months.
The current Year of the Pig was a particularly tough year for its namesake, seeing at least a quarter of China’s 500 million pig population culled and even a hog forced to bungee jump. Thankfully, there are some signs that the Year of the Rat may be a little kinder. While we’re not counting our chickens (and mice) just yet, there have been some positive developments which may see compulsory animal testing for foreign cosmetics phased out.
The new zodiac brings the usual roundup of pricy rodent-themed watches (including the Vacheron Constantin’s rat-themed time pieces priced from £85,000 ($110K)), expensive mice trinkets, lipstick embossed with CNY-themes, and rodent-embroidered sports shoes. Surprisingly, some brands have developed creepy, even scarily-realistic rats on their products, which has many consumers shuddering. But the least-scary merchandise has been some of the most popular – the repurposing of American ‘toons including Etro’s Warner Bros. partnership to create a Tom & Jerry collection, and Disney’s Mickey Mouse collaborations with countless brands including Gucci, Adidas (in 3D), SK-II and Miu Miu (x Minnie Mouse) – and a host of cheap Mickey Mouse rip-offs on Taobao. Even Moschino has jumped on the theming wagon with its Mickey Rat parody.
The Chinese word for rat, 鼠/shǔ, sounds similar to 数/shù, meaning to count. The wonderful Chinese language-plays on similar pronunciations have been popular in the lead up to this New Year, with common slogans such as ‘count as one of the best’, ‘you count as the best’ and ‘countless money/joy/happiness’ headlining many ads. Yet some of the most talked-about commercials have been from Western brands.
While there haven’t been the same high-profile cultural gaffs that have dogged foreign brands over previous Spring Festivals, a number of Western brands have tapped into that increasing need to remind Chinese consumers that the foreign brands are on their side. They have been sensitive to Chinese culture and not just wheeling out the common stereotypes about Chinese New Year in thinly-veiled attempts to demonstrate some cultural understanding.
Apple and Nike are the exemplar examples of executing this brilliantly. Apple with their ‘shot on an iPhone’ subtleness, encapsulated the romantic spirit of Chinese New Year with an 8-minute tear-jerking video seeing three generations love for their daughters in Chongqing. Nike on the other hand, captured a Chinese NY tradition of refusing red packets with good humour in their 90-second ad, cleverly weaving in Nike kicks throughout.
Although CNY is the most-cluttered and expensive time to advertise in China, no other occasion allows brands to better connect with Chinese tradition and consumers who are often more suspicious of foreign brands. Don’t leave planning for the Year of the Ox too long. We wish you a happy and prosperous Year of the Rat and will be back after the holiday in early February. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.