The Great Leap Backward: China's New Ad Campaign About Parents And Piety

by Abe Sauer

A spot about a father suffering from Alzheimer’s is the most popular of a new series of ads that has young people on China’s social networks talking — or better put, it has them talking about crying. “Every time I see it I cry,” writes one Weibo user. Hers is a typical reaction. Filial piety might seem a laughable topic for a public-service campaign in the west, but in China, it’s the basis for a campaign aimed to guilt kids into thinking about the elderly. Making China’s youth cry is not enough, though; China needs the new generation to act on that guilt, to buy into the Confucian ideal that has long served as the country’s social safety net.

The only problem is that China is also asking them to buy everything else.

The Alzheimer’s ad concludes with the tagline: “He’s forgotten a lot of things. But he’ll never forget he loves you.” Pow! Cue tears of a hundred million one-child children who’ve gone off to work hard, achieve China’s middle-class dream, and reap the consumer and lifestyle spoils that dream affords.

Across social media, the subject of crying is a common one. “Today everyone on the web is crying,” wrote another Weibo user of the spots. Some wrote that the campaign is “like tear gas.”

It’s no surprise that, in an interview with the Yangtze Evening Post, the Chinese creative team behind the spots revealed the inspiration for the standout Alzheimer’s ad came from the real-life experiences of one of the team.

Other ads in the campaign may be eliciting less reaction, but they’re still resonant. One spot, “Mom is Waiting” (妈妈的等待) is equally emotionally fraught.
The ad follows a mother playfully raising her boy into a man, who then proceeds happily into his future as the camera pans back as the lonely mom fades away: “Don’t love too late. Go home more often to visit.”

Not all of the ads are so grim. One titled “A Belated New Sweater” (迟来的新衣) features migrant workers motorcycling home to rural areas for a warm Spring Festival (“Chinese New Year”) celebration. Tagline: “China. Let your heart go home.”
Though the focus is always on going home, the campaign explores other themes, including one spot set in Africa, where the nation’s booming investment has created a substantial Chinese expat community.
Another spot highlights generational connections as an elderly man pays his respects to his late mother.
In common between all of the ads are exceptionally high production values and quality video work. China has done “visit home” public-service ads in the past, but none approach the focused, emotional laser of the latest campaign. None had the subtlety of that moment when the camera lingers on the wrinkles of a mother beaming proudly at the successful, returned son. It’s a testament to the ads’ powers that one doesn’t need to speak a word of Mandarin to feel the emotional impact.*

Hong Kong director Alfred Hau (侯仲贤) is behind the work. Hau, who has done ads for western brands like Kohler, is well known for video that captures the warmer subtleties, humor and nostalgia of Chinese family dynamic. Hau’s Hong Kong market work (with Such Partners) for US discount retailer PriceRite is a display of these talents, including making a tender emotional connection between low-price Tupperware and your dad’s 1970s porn stash.

But China’s drive to get its kids to “visit home” is more than a philosophical desire for a Confucian ideal. It’s an economic imperative.

China’s social safety net in part relies on each generation taking care of the last. Except, thanks in part to China’s one child policy and overall slowed population growth, by 2035 the nation is projected to have 280 million residents over the age 65, or about 20 percent of the whole. By 2040, the elderly will account for closer to 30 percent of the total.

One characteristic of China’s economic rise has been that younger workers leave home to move to booming urban areas. No surprise, they find the vibrant lifestyles there more appealing than their more rural beginnings. A growing number of reports also suggest what has long been suspected — a generation of spoiled, single, “after 80s” and “after 90s” (80后, 90后) children who know nothing but breakneck economic betterment and have been pushed to succeed in competitive environments are now finding it hard to think beyond themselves.

“I’m busy everyday. Even weekends. I went home at Spring Festival but when else can I get away, I’m always working,” a Shanghai friend named Golden told me. From a smaller town west of the urban Yangtze River delta and working at as HR head hunter, Golden shrugged and reasoned that he would maybe go home more often but worries his boss would notice and those who do not go home would get ahead.

His colleague, a 20-something named Chad, went home for Spring Festival but echoes the sentiment. “I have a life in the city. I go to the gym. I work hard and like spending time with my friends. My parents live in Sichuan. Do you know how far it is from Shanghai to Sichuan?”

Both said they’d seen the Alzheimer’s spot and been moved, though not quite to tears. Golden says he got his parents a Surface tablet and taught them to use it to keep them occupied. “I just hope they don’t spend to much on Taobao now,” he concluded, referring to China’s popular eBay online retailer.

The situation was more ominously thrown into relief in a great, recent Aeon Magazine piece on China’s youth that featured a paradigm-shaking comment from one 26 year old: “It’s not just a generation gap. It’s a values gap.”

That the gap is about values should keep China’s central planners up at night. China’s current elder-care facilities could, at best, handle 2 percent of the total in-need population. Last month, China Daily reported that the wait for a spot at Beijing’s No. 1 Social Welfare House was about 100 years.

China’s “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly” includes a chapter titled “Maintenance and Support by Families” with these instructions:

Article 10 The elderly shall be provided for mainly by their families, and their family members shall care for and look after them.

Article 11 Supporters of the elderly shall perform the duties of providing for the elderly, taking care of them and comforting them, and cater to their special needs.
The supporters referred to here are the sons and daughters of the elderly and other people who are under the legal obligation to provide for the elderly.

The spouses of the supporters shall assist them in performing their obligation to provide for the elderly.

Article 12 The supporters shall pay medical expenses for the elderly suffering from illnesses and provide them with nursing care.

A common false perception of China is that it’s lawless. In fact, it’s fat with laws. What China lacks is enforcement. Its laws governing elder care are no exception. In 2011 and 2012, China threatened to legislate elder care with a law allowing parents to sue deadbeat children. But even thinking about a practical way to enforce such a law leaves the brain as snarled as one of Beijing’s famousEnd-Times traffic jams.

Lest this be mistaken as a problem exclusive to Mainland China, other regional neighbors are facing similar filial deterioration. In 2010, Singapore’s Ministry of Community and Youth Services produced the emotions disemboweling “Father and Son” spot to push traditional Chinese filiality. It even threw in some callouts to Christian values for the hell of it.

While never far from mind in China, the web has made thoughts on the subject of filiality more easily shared by China’s always-online youth. Two years ago, social network users went bonkers for a short film with a similar theme, “Heaven’s Lunch.” Viewed millions of times, the film elicited the same reactions of weeping and tears as the new CCTV ads. “Lunch” also is about watching a mother die. In fact, she fades away just as in the new “Mom is Waiting” spot. (As with so many in this genre, “Lunch” also revolves a great deal around cooking and eating food, the de facto shared language of most Chinese families.) Of course, while this online sharing can create a positive message multiplier effect, it can make an audience numb to the message.

In a 2011 man-on-the-street piece at Rednet, a reporter asked different Qingdao residents about their spending. What he found was parents spending lavishly on their (usually single) children with little leftover for the grandparents. One parent said her child required spending 36,300 RMB ($5,850) a year, which left only 2,900 RMB ($470) for her parents in rural Huitang. The parents spoke of car payments, tuition, lessons, dinners, gifts, entertainment, insurance, cell phones and other more or less everyday expenditures of consumer culture.

And that’s why the push to get children to save money and care for the ballooning elderly population is paradoxical messaging from Beijing. China is actively attempting the move from a state infrastructure investment-driven economy to one more reliant on consumer spending. But adding the financial burden of parents onto those who are to shoulder the job of consuming enough to push China into a new economic model may just be too much to ask, even harder than asking them to watch mom and dad die over and over and over again.

* It’s worth noting that even in the consumer products world, China’s advertisers commonly appeal, usually subtly, to a sense of filial piety. And it’s not a new trend. In the west, advertising knows 1984 as the year of the Apple “1984” Macintosh ad. But in China’s ad history, 1984 was the year of manufacturer Weili’s (威力) breakthrough”Mother, I had a dream” ad that skipped the typically emotionless laundry list of product features in favor of correlating giving mom a washing machine to being a loving, dutiful child.

Related: The East Is Drunk: Hammered and Sickled in China and Meet Mike Sui, A Dude From Wisconsin Who’s Now China’s Biggest Viral Start

Abe Sauer is the author of How to be: NORTH DAKOTA.