Jing Huiwen says he never meant to scare anyone with a seemingly alarmist television commercial about the mythical Sibuxiang beast prowling toward this isolated north China town.
But scare them he did. And some say Jing and his Jinxin Image Creation Center may have changed advertising in China forever.
“It is said that the Sibuxiang is penetrating our area from Yanmenguan Pass and within days will enter thousands of homes,” said a stream of text that scrolled ominously across an otherwise blank television screen.
“Everyone close your windows and doors and be on alert.”
Left unsaid was that Sibuxiang--a mythical beast whose name roughly means “neither fish nor fowl"--was the brand name of a new liquor made at Yanmenguan, or that later advertisements would launch a contest asking people to guess what the product was.
Many viewers missed the words “respected citizens (consumers)” that started the 15-second spot and its telltale sign-off: “plotted by Jinxin Advertising.”
According to press accounts and interviews in the capital of conservative Shanxi province, the panic that gripped Taiyuan for 24 hours echoed that sparked in the United States by Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.
Children refused to go to school and housewives would not leave their homes for fear of the Sibuxiang, whose bite, fast-flying rumors said, would kill within 24 hours.
Calls from alarmed citizens flooded into police, television and radio station switchboards. The Communist Party propaganda bureau ordered the campaign halted and launched an investigation of advertisement creator Jing and his firm.
“Why did they want to make such scary ads? They frighten us children,” a Taiyuan child later told state television. A local man fumed that such advertisements “hurt people.”
Ten weeks later Jing was forced to apologize on national television as part of a broad warning against irresponsible advertising in China’s ill-regulated socialist market economy.
He was fined 5,000 yuan ($590) for violating China’s draft Advertisement Law, which takes effect in February and bans false, misleading, or, as in Sibuxiang’s case, “horrific” ads.
Jing, Jinxin’s creative spark plug, told Reuters in an interview the advertisement was factual, if cheeky, and maintains he did nothing irresponsible, unethical, harmful or wrong.
He prefers to think he sparked a revolution in the exploding industry, where television advertisements typically are poorly made testimonials with voice-overs shouting the virtues of the product on display.
“Up to now, advertising has been a last resort for firms whose products have not been selling,” the voluble 39-year-old said in his Taiyuan office a day after his nationally televised apology.
By contrast, he said, the Sibuxiang liquor ad and the media furor it ignited created a nationwide brand name overnight.
Repeated mention of Sibuxiang in the cautionary national television news story--which even rebroadcast the offending advertisement--gave the brand the kind of sweeping public exposure that few sponsors dare even dream of.
“This advertisement has awakened a very conservative sector to the potential of creative advertising,” Jing said.
The State Administration for Industry and Commerce said advertisement sales in China in the first half of 1994 rocketed 73% compared with the first half of 1993 to 7.4 billion yuan ($870 million).
Jinxin’s client paid just 800 yuan ($94) to air the brief spot six times in one evening on the smallest television station in Taiyuan, a city of three million people 375 kilometers (230 miles) southwest of Beijing.
Jing feels that and the 5,000 yuan fine were a tiny price to pay for one of the most successful advertisements in Chinese history.
“After the Sibuxiang ad, the streets were filled with panic and rumor, but our offices were filled with enterprises hoping to sign up as clients,” Jing said.
“We’ve earned the trust of China’s commercial circles.”
Jing would not disclose Jinxin’s earnings, but said his stable of 40 retainer clients had quadrupled since the Sept. 19 advertisement and the firm would take no new bookings until early next year.
Despite the official censure, much of China’s general and trade press appears to be lining up behind Jing and his firm.
A commentator in the national daily China Business said stalwarts who regarded Jing’s advertisement as heresy were unfit for the market economy. “Those who think like that are far from able to adapt to economic development,” he said.
“The Sibuxiang advertisement was a success,” said Taiyuan’s Family Living News. “All others should study Jinxin’s masterpiece.”
Jing said he would not hesitate to make such an advertisement again and was working on a new Sibuxiang spot, but pledged to “stay within the boundaries of community standards.”
“Some people are still afraid to stick their necks out, but someone has to do so or there will be no progress,” he said.
“It’s my mission to give the people creative advertising. Without this kind of progress in advertising, there can never be any real progress in China’s economy.”