Advertising and Marketing

In Shaanxi's ad industry, there's a new cowboy in town

Making development zones attractive

This article was contributed by Iacob Koch-Weser.

Word has it the wild west of Shaanxi province has spawned a new "gunslinger." He's not a double-dealing coal maverick or a guanxi-savvy cadre - he's just a freelancer who spices up government reports as quickly and accurately as a Colt .45. By penning a few thousand words to promote the New Development Zones mushrooming around the capital Xi'an, he is making a real killing.

The archetypal "gunslinger" is Yu Menghong, who was profiled this week in The Economic Observer. A graduate of Journalism from Zhejiang University, he started his career back east at an economics newspaper until he followed his girlfriend out west in 2005. He worked at Xi'an's largest paper for a while, a job that many other writers in a saturated market would have been more than happy to have. Yet Yu soon decided that his talents didn't suit the writing and interviewing style of a popular daily.

Rather than consider a move to the burgeoning private sector, Yu realized that the dusty info machines of the government were in dire need of fresh talent. Midway through each year, districts and counties around Xi'an prepare to publish reports about the annual achievements of the New Development Zones in their area. Because this PR gimmick is a key to attracting capital and resources, local governments often allot up to tens of millions from the obscure depths of their coffers in support of the cause. That means high payouts for both the newspapers who allot space for the reports, as well as for those outsourced to write them.

When it comes to things like environmental protection, cutting-edge R&D, and efficient use of resources, Xi'an's outskirts don’t exactly represent the vanguard of the PRC. That's where the "gunslinger" comes in: armed with hyperboles, allusions, and poetic élan, he adds that extra something to gloss over the imperfections. Consider the concluding lines to one of Yu’s more sublime pieces about the Qujiang New Development Zone:

"China's Xi'an, the best of the West" is a big slogan; a promotional ad for Qujiang [New Development Zone] is a little slogan. Shouted in unison, big and little slogans will resound throughout All Under Heaven. ... A new era has already set sail, and Qujiang's great development has already begun its voyage. Let us remake Xi'an and strive to make Qujiang the best! Myriad years are too long a time; let's make it happen overnight!

This may not seem all that impressive, until you consider that Yu is typing up these articles at a pace of 2 x 3000 characters a night. Plus, there are subtle nuances: "It has to suit a newspaper style by adhering to journalistic standards," Yu says. "At the same time, it has to present the achievements of government work...It can't just be well-versed; it needs show familiarity with the government system and with the people at higher and lower levels within it."

What makes the task tricky is that the targeted reader is not your average Xi'an noodle house customer. We’re talking about the big shots from the public sector, the ones who are chauffeured around in lustrous Audis while jabbering into their cell phones. Enchanted by Yu's eloquence, the hope is that they might just spread their limited wealth to Development Zone X rather than Y.

Whether that actually happens or not doesn’t much concern Yu. As a "gunslinger" in the "advertising war," he is contracted by officials from various Zones. His salary of more than 10,000 yuan per article is on par with any feature journalist at the papers he used to work at. That said, he is a bit dissatisfied that his writing talents aren't accruing more symbolic capital. He concedes that he's envious of the "journalists who do real news." As The Economic Observer puts it: "He can only console himself by saying that writing is just another job to make some cash."

The smell of money seems to have prompted "gunslingers" of other shapes and sizes to appear on China’s job market. Take, for instance, the “exam gunslinger" who says he can ace tests for you on demand. During a visit to a Tianjin university campus over the winter holidays last year, a journalist from Tianjin's Metro Express was appalled to find a bunch of hand-written ads by "gunslingers" posted on message boards. Strangely enough, there were also plenty of ads by students desperate to employ these brainy assassins to take exams in their place; one student offered up to 2000 yuan for a math test. Evidently, the disparities in both pocket money and learning ability among the student body have opened up this market.

It’s always fun to view the rapidly developing, semi-lawless PRC as a wild west of sorts. Such was the tack taken by a hit documentary on UK’s ITV last year, which featured a brawny British businessman with a Cockney accent climbing into mines and hoodwinking merchants in northwest China. That show, of course, was an orientalist farce that aimed to please the English bourgeoisie. Our pen-wielding "gunslinger," whether as writer or test taker, might be a more suitable embodiment of the modern Jessie James.

In June, Iacob Koch-Weser took a look at the Chinese edition of National Geographic.

Update (October 10): The Economic Observer today published an English translation of the Chinese article linked below: Confessions of a propaganda hitman.

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There are currently 2 Comments for In Shaanxi's ad industry, there's a new cowboy in town.

Comments on In Shaanxi's ad industry, there's a new cowboy in town

[H]e's just a freelancer who spices up government reports as quickly and accurately as a Colt .45.
I've never known Colt .45s to spice up government reports either quickly or accurately.

Prove me wrong or unmix the metaphors.

And how does one "spice up" anything "accurately"?


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