Chris Kyme: A postcard from Hong Kong

Chris Kyme_April2016.jpgIn our latest "postcard from..." series, Chris Kyme goes in search of happiness of the streets of Hong Kong and ponders why there are so many smiling faces reflected in the city's mass advertising.

I blame it all on Pharrell Williams. Ever since that song was out I've noticed a distinct increase in the presence of happy faces all over Hong Kong. Not among the general public I might add. Hong Kongers are not noted for cheerfulness on the streets. Visitors might interpret this for it being a miserable society, but to me it's just the public face of a hardworking, no-nonsense pragmatic people who are out every day earning a dollar to survive. As with New York, a city Hong Kong is often likened to, there's fun and humour to be found here, it just doesn't manifest itself in the form of superficial cheery smiles out on the streets every day. Take it or leave it. That's Hong Kong.
So how come there are so many smiling faces to be found in the general daily offering of mass advertising? And that's the happiness I'm talking about. It's all over the place, for every product category whatever the target group. It's as if insight-driven strategies have been thrown right out of the window in agencies all over Hong Kong in favour of just showing happy consumers who, having bought and sampled the product (be it a drink, face cream, investment package, medicine, food item or set of socket spanners) are euphoric in their expressions of joy brought to them by the experience. Wandering these bustling streets every day I (like any career adman) take it all in and at some point started wondering if there was some sort of conspiracy at work here, to cheer the place up given it's had its ups and downs in recent years. I started a collection recently. I call it my 'Happiness wall'.

ChrisKyme_happiness.jpgOne well-known shopping mall even went so far as to make 'Live Happy' its brand message. As if that's going to solve the ongoing dissatisfaction with government, or the impossible-to-enter out of reach for ordinary young people property market. "Smile, it ain't so bad". Just lost your job? Live Happy! Yay!

Personally I think it's nothing as sinister as that. I think it just comes down to diplomatic handling of dictatorial clients who misguidedly think showing happy product users is the way to go. Agencies don't like to upset clients because they want the bucks rolling in, so there's your campaign. And it's hard, I can honestly see how those conversations come into being. Agency presents some good thinking, and after a few rounds, bingo. You're on a photo shoot asking a fake Mum, Dad and Junior to looking even more overjoyed as they each clutch a mug of hot beverage. Not so long ago, we were presenting to a client for a stomach pain relief product, who quite innocently asked if there was a way to show the after-effect of having taken the product. But when you've got the heebie geebies in your belly, and you're in pain, what's the after-effect of relief? It must be normal right? Just look normal. Nobody actually goes out and cracks open a bottle of Bollinger to celebrate getting over the gut-rot.

We did actually did turn down a new client who wanted us to do the happy thing. They announced we'd won the pitch. But instead of going with the carefully thought-through brand campaign we'd presented, showed us a picture of the female talent they had selected, and how happy she should look in the planned photo. We said thanks but no thanks. We don't need the money. They scurried away and executed it with a not-to-be-named big name agency, and since then, a few years ago, have failed and left Hong Kong (the client not the agency.)

I'm sure Hong Kong is no different than a million other markets mind you, there are happy faces all over the world right now, driving past on buses, smiling down from giant billboards and staring at you from your morning paper (if you're one of the diminishing target group who actually do read them any more).

In the end, the only people I think the happy ads actually make happy upon seeing them, are the clients who ordered them.

Chris Kyme is chief executive officer at Kymechow, Hong Kong.

Read Grahan Kelly's "Postcard from Vietnam".

1 Comments

Well Chris you have at least made me happy. I liked the comment about a product that just makes you normal. Not GLEEfull ( just like Pharrel ) that damned tv show seemed to make that damned word mandatory for a while. There are products that make us happy, some make us giddy, a lot that leave us at just " ok that's better". Keep setting us straight Chris.

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