Advertising in Shanghai

Advertising in Shanghai is pretty different to US advertising, to no surprise. Of course the way you reach people in an entirely different culture is going to be different right? Still, there are some similarities between the two visually.

Of course, most of my analysis of Chinese advertising is going to be visual, seeing as how I can’t read the characters yet. I’ll be looking at some over-arching visual themes, as well as trends in the types of brands and products that have the most visibility from my point of view. Traditionally, advertising comes in three main forms; print, video, and online, but mobile ad spend has been on the rise since the inception of the smart phone. I’ll attempt to extract some common themes that advertisers in China (Shanghai specifically because that’s where I am) use to reach their audiences, without knowing much of government advertising regulations and cultural taboos that might affect how advertising is presented.

What does advertising look like?

Advertising is everywhere in Shanghai, from metro stations and busy shopping squares, to small posters glued to the side of street vendor carts, there’s always something being put in front of your face. As far as frequent products, there’s a lot of product ads (cooking oil, cars, and phones), but also services popular in China, like Taobao (their version of Amazon), TMall, WeChat, Alipay, and a host of other apps and digital services. Advertising is generally less dramatic than American ads; with few to no ‘serious’ ads. Bright, positive tones, colors, and messaging (I’m assuming, from all the exclamation marks I see) are commonplace within ads, mobile, print, and TV alike.

As far as ad formats go, billboards are sparse, but digital and canvas displays are omnipresent. I haven’t watched much television so I can’t speak much on that medium, but Internet advertising is just as common behind the Great Firewall. There are many platform options for advertising here, whether it’s POP displays, pop up events/exhibits in the plethora of malls around Shanghai, promotions through Taobao, Alipay, or other apps, to things as obnoxious and in your face as people handing out flyers to trapped metro riders.


What are some common themes?

The name of the game in Shanghai is QR. QR codes are everywhere and are used for things like payment, advertising, and even social media. They’re kind of like how common credit cards are in the states, but for many more digital purposes than just spending money.

QR codes function in a similar fashion that bar codes function. While they do see some use in the States, it hasn’t caught on nearly as much as it has in China, and instead looks kind of like a digital fad instead of a baseline technology that a lot of other services use ( i.e ‘Use Facebook to Login’). QR codes link to pages, promotions, links to red packets (digital envelopes of free money, input into your balance or relevant payment/shopping app), make and send payments through WeChat Pay or Alipay, and can even be used to add friends on Chinese social media. Because they’re so flexible in their use, they make highly valuable tools for digital marketing. QR codes are only so valuable because basically everyone in China who has a phone seem to be using them. Shanghai has ‘bought into’ the system, which makes integrated marketing that much more effective.

Mini games. Partnerships with mobile games. Huge focus on mobile ad spend means that advertisers are aware of how shifting digital trends must be adapted to. Even traditional ad mediums like display ads in metro/shopping areas have QR codes in the corner so that they can capture the experience online.

The omnipresence of mobile advertising is also beneficial for the customer in some ways because you can pay, shop, order food, load metro, and a host of various services I haven’t even figured out yet with just a few apps. For payments, there’s WeChat Pay and AliPay. Want to order food? and Meituan are the big players ( and AliPay are so well integrated because the Alibaba, the company that owns AliPay, has also bought out Taobao and TMall are the major online shopping services, with major retailers on their apps. The list goes on, but those are the few that I’ve found using more often than not.

All of these apps interconnect with each other in a way that makes shopping and spending money in general really easy. This is new territory, so I imagine that there’s not much regulations for the mobile advertising industry, because advertising is so ingrained with how you use your phone in China. It’s hard to shut out exposure, which could cause ad fatigue or contribute to social problems in the future if it’s not addressed (The only restriction I’ve found is that ads can’t restrict how the user experiences the native app, but I’ve found nothing about frequency and location of your ad spend). But for the rapidly developing, rapidly moving, and ‘newly’ wealthy in Shanghai, that doesn’t seem like too much of a concern.

Overall, I think that the use of QR codes in advertising has streamlined how consumers are exposed to and purchase products, and wouldn’t be surprised to see another trial of integration in the west, as China continues to become a global economic superpower.


Ads in and around Shanghai:


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