Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context: The Mile High Club

( Source )

Quick question: for want of a better word, what vibe do you get from the above image? How does it make you feel?

Part of this Korean Air advertisement, how about with the caption:

( Source )

Quick question: for want of a better word, what vibe do you get from the above image? How does it make you feel?

Part of this Korean Air advertisement, how about with the caption:

From departure to arrival, only dignified services for our dignified guests.

Or with the fine print:

When you land, you should be in the same delicate condition as you were during take-off. That’s why our delicate service with a smile remains constant throughout the flight until you reach your destination.

In particular, do you find it demeaning to the steward in any way, or women in general?

Does the fact that only 11% of Korean Air stewards are men influence you in any way, Korean Air only hiring men from within its own ground staff since 1997, but women also from the general public?

And finally, do you get the same vibe from this Gucci advertisement? Why or why not?

( Source: the Fashion Spot {NSFW})

Alas, I have no information about the Gucci advertisement unfortunately (I would be grateful if any readers could enlighten me), but the Korean Air advertisement at least ran in magazines and newspapers worldwide in March 2008, and I recall finding it vaguely disturbing when I saw it in the Asian edition of The Economist at the time, but not quite being able to put my finger on why exactly.

And as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one, commentators from Singapore to London either baffled by it, finding it “hilarious that Korean Air published it in a Western magazine,” thinking it demeaning to women, and/or hoping that in Korea itself “it’s some kind of image of empowerment.” But I didn’t personally see anything sexual in it however, and so – forgive my naivety – originally didn’t quite get this unspecified newspaper author who commented that they were “glad that she is wearing a scarf, which is part of her uniform, and not something else.” Moreover, I certainly didn’t think it looked like she was about to perform fellatio either, unlike the author of Copyranter:

KOREAN AIR: How May We Service You?

Korean Air: You think our turbines have suction power…

The ad copy (click image) reads, in part: “That’s why our delicate service (no teeth!) with a smile remains constant throughout the flight…” Now, the ad was scanned from the March 31st Asian edition of Newsweek. And as tipster Juditha wrote, there certainly is a cultural difference with how female flight attendants (and really, all females) are perceived in Asian culture. But. Still. If the airline keeps running ads in this vein (sorry!), their male passengers are not going to stop at unbuckling just their seat belts.

But hey, we all make mistakes, and it’s not like there weren’t some distinctly sexual overtones to the advertising campaign as a whole; with thanks to fellow blogger Logan Row for pointing it out, note the symbolism at 0:19 in the commercial below for instance (and quite a common theme in wine advertisements!):

What is the logic of the Korean Air advertisement then? Well, as commentators in those above links pointed out, what Korean Air is trying to say in it is:

…that their attendants will go the extra mile for their guests. The pose that the flight attendant is striking is how traditional Korean hostesses would serve guests in their own homes. It is a traditional Korean (and to an extent Japanese) form of humility and hospitality

And that it’s a reference to the:

…Korean (and Asian) custom of bowing in front of your elders, parents, to people you respect, or in general to show deference to someone and submission. (ie students serve their teachers drinks/food on their knees) Its a position of servitude not necessarily the same ‘on your knees’ sexual connotation we have in the US. Obviously all of this still is problematic as far as the the female subjugation at the will of the Korean Air clients and basically almost just as offensive. But I thought that cultural reference was probably really important as well, as Korean, and other Asian cultures would read it with that in mind.

And finally that:

it conjures up being treated like royalty – in the old days the servants of royalty had to kneel and bow at all times when presenting the king with food/drinks/documents and then scoot out the door, never showing their backs. it is a sign of respect. with that said, this should not run anywhere outside East Asia as it can be misconstrued by everyone else.

( Source: the Fashion Spot {NSFW})

However, unfortunately it was. And unlike in Korea where cultural factors mean that the advertisement is not necessarily demeaning to women, a person’s social status usually trumping factors like how (literally) highly they are placed in an advertisement (see here, here, and here), having any group regularly placed lower than another in advertisements tends to be problematic in Western culture, for reasons the late sociologist Erving Goffman outlined in Gender Advertisements (1979):

Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)

And also:

Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)

Granted, the Gucci and Calvin Klein examples of this above are particularly provocative, but you can see more normal ones in this “Ritualization of Subordination” category of Goffman’s framework at The Gender Ads Project if you’re interested. Moreover, in light of those, I’m no longer entirely convinced that the Korean Air advertisement isn’t still problematic despite its cultural context: after all, with the proviso that men usually look rather awkward in poses that are sexually appealing on women (as hilariously demonstrated here), I personally find it very difficult to imagine a man in place of a woman in the Korean Air advertisement, although I fully concede that that may be due to my own socialization process leading me to believe that it is more “natural” with a woman, or even simply my familiarity with the advertisement, that happened to feature a woman rather than a man. Or is it not just me?

( Source: WallyWorld )

Regardless, this is by no means the first time that Korean advertisers or advertising agencies have produced advertisements that are appropriate for and/or logical to Koreans, but completely confusing and even offensive overseas. Not that only Korean companies are guilty of doing so of course, but they are the focus here, so let me leave you with 2 examples, the most notorious of which is probably Korean cosmetic maker Coreana’s (코리아나) use of Nazi imagery in 2008, about which you can read more at Brian in Jeollanam-do here, here, and then here (and the video is still available at Adland.TV).

Next, slightly more benign, there is that for the Samsung Sens notebook computer from September last year:

The logic of those with other, non-Sens notebooks having pig noses is that Korean 2-plug electrical sockets do indeed look a little similar, and I’ve heard that that’s traditionally what they were called too (but perhaps only by children?).  Regardless however, one wonders why they act like bafoons, and particularly why they’re all Caucasian when the commercial was filmed in a city as racially diverse as Sydney?

But a crucial difference between those and the Korean Air advertisement was that only the latter was intended for a global audience, and so the advertiser or advertising agency responsible should really should have known better. And now I’m curious: can anyone think of other cases where Korean advertisers or advertising agencies have made similar mistakes overseas? Alas, given the insular nature of the Korean advertising industry, probably not!

(For more posts in the “Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context” series, see here, here, here, here, and here)


Filed under: Gender Roles, Gender Socialization, Korean Advertisements, Sex in Advertising, Sexual Discrimination Tagged: Erving Goffman, Gender Advertisements, Korean Air

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