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No More Itchy, Burning Ads at Dinnertime

Times Staff Writer

China rang in the New Year by banning TV advertising during dinnertime for sanitary napkins, hemorrhoid ointments and athlete’s foot medicines -- to the delight of many viewers.

“This is really welcome,” said Lei Jianqiang, 33, an employee in the state railway bureau who lives in Beijing. “Those sorts of ads are so disgusting. They completely ruin my appetite. Those skin disease ads in particular are really something. I jump up and change the channel.”

The new rules, announced Wednesday in the state-run China Daily, also include limits on commercials, with a maximum of nine minutes per hour during the prime-time hours of 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. This compares with some channels that now show as many ads as viewers will tolerate, and then some.

One person’s delight is another person’s bite, however. Advertising executives weren’t pleased with the changes, which they said could cost them millions.

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“It will really affect the industry and our clients,” said Sun Fangmin, planning executive at McCann-Erickson Guangming, one of China’s largest ad agencies. “And competition will become even more fierce next year because there’s less prime-time advertising available.”

Like many markets in China, TV advertising has evolved rapidly from a base of near zero a couple of decades ago to a vibrant, diverse market. Broadcasting ranges from staid state-run programming with few commercial breaks to down-market soap operas punctuated by advertising slugfests.

With relatively limited regulation over parts of the business, it’s not uncommon to find programming in some markets interrupted four or five times an hour by blocks of 10-ad segments, raising the hackles of the average Chinese.

In 2000, a viewer in Xian who sued a cable television company for interrupting a soap opera with too many commercials was awarded $85 by a local court.

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Ye Lingyun of the Beijing Qianhuo Advertising Agency said she found the graphic shots of infected feet during mealtime a bit much. “It’s disgusting,” she said. As a professional, however, she’s concerned that too many rules could hamper market development.

“Too many restrictions could hurt society,” she said. “People do more than sit around watching television. They need to consume things. And without ads, they won’t know what to buy.”

Others counter, however, that consumption isn’t everything. China still has socialist ideals, even if they’re increasingly hard to find amid the headlong rush for designer jeans and multi-function cellphones.

“These restrictions are good because they pay attention to the social impact of ads,” said Zhao Xianquan, chief editor of the state-owned Central China Television news center. “Chinese media [aren’t] completely commercial, so we still worry about people’s feelings.”

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Analysts said that over the long term, the changes could help bring more order and structure to the commercial television market, which some insiders characterize as chaotic and too often filled with low-quality ads making dubious claims.

In the near term, however, they are likely to create some ripples. Television stations, particularly smaller, regional players, will need to find new business to replace the highly profitable, albeit highly unpalatable, mix of ads for hemorrhoid and athlete’s foot cure-alls.

In addition, having fewer spots during prime time will probably push up rates for the few commercials that are aired, leading to better-quality ads sponsored by bigger names, with weaker players pushed out of the television mainstream into radio and print markets.

Some worry that the regulations are discriminatory. “If an athlete’s foot ad is creative and well done, I’d love to watch it,” said Li Wenbo, a media planner.

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Researcher Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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