What can we learn from the world’s greatest propagandists? Tobias Wacker, Planning Director of BBH China, explores how China’s propaganda machine has embraced the 21st century… and left their beloved posters behind

Every day on my way to the office, I walk past this poster in Shanghai. 

It reads “reinforce the achievement of nationwide civilised districts”. 

It is a Chinese propaganda poster promoting the “socialist core values” – 
freedom, equality, justice, a civilised society and, well, democracy.

It is also entirely ignored. I have never seen anyone pay attention to it.

And why would they? The poster provides nothing to learn, to emulate or to aspire to for its audience. Its message is abstract. Its design amateurish. It feels like the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China were in a rush to get the job done before lunch. 

This is very much representative of the scores of posters that are plastered on walls across the country.

“Ensure that the self-governance of the ‘Two Learnings and One Action’ Seeing Party is exercised fully and with rigour.” 
Build a civilised city, create a happy Wuxi

They seem like the result of a box ticking exercise – low priority items on a long list of more important campaign deliverables.

And they probably are. 

The truth is China’s Propagandists have a new favourite medium: Content. They are constantly finding ingenious ways to connect to their audience through culture, from patriotic rap videos and millennial-targeted government social media accounts to blockbuster movies like Wolf Warrior 2.

Rap Group Tianfu Shibian’s patriotic rap videos are being actively promoted by the Communist Party’s Youth League
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission’s Social Media Account “Chang An Jian” has a youthful avatar and content focusing on Chinese millennials
Patriotic action movie Wolf Warrior 2 grossed 874 Million USD at the box office

Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, the 2019 feature film My People, My Country tells of historical moments of the PRC’s history though the lenses of “ordinary Chinese people”.

It has become one of the most successful Chinese movies of all time. Its theme song, sung by Mandopop icon Faye Wong, is a smash hit on Chinese Social Media.

The Music video of “My Country, My People” by Wang Fei has been watched more than 75 million times on Tencent’s video platform.

By all measures, 21st century Chinese Propaganda has proven to be incredibly successful. The generation born after 1990 feel a strong sense of pride for their motherland and its rise towards becoming a global superpower. 

With so much success at the box office and on digital media platforms, it seems designing a poster is the last thing Chinese Propagandists think about.

This is a remarkable downgrade for a medium that, throughout the formative yeas of the PRC, was the pride and joy of Chinese Propagandists.

Posters from this era mixed the relatable with the aspirational.

They portrayed ordinary Chinese in ways that made them feel proud about themselves and optimistic about their future. 

Let’s build a rich, socialist country together!”

They beautifully combined traditional cultural symbols with the symbols of modern life.

Using the auspicious symbols of dragon and phoenix to promote the “great leap forward”

Their message was simple to understand and designed to inspire action. 

“Let’s learn from the achievements of the Soviet Union and build a world class-scientific community together!” 

Most of all, they were skilfully crafted, intricate pieces of art, in stark contrast to today’s propaganda posters.

And so it is no wonder that the traditional designs today are collector items, on sale in shops and on display in living rooms all across China.

Classic propaganda posters on Taobao, China’s #1 e-commerce platform

As an advertising professional, I can hardly blame today’s propagandists for their lack of dedication to creating great posters. Our industry isn’t exactly doing a stand-out job in that department either.

As with China’s propagandists, our industry is obsessed with the new and shiny objects of persuasion at our disposal. We tend to focus our attention on digital activations, brand stunts and experiential campaigns. The design elements of a campaign – print, OOH or displays – all too frequently seem to become low priority items on the long campaign list.

But perhaps wrongfully so.

A 2018 study by the IPA revealed the positive effect of OOH on advertising effectiveness. Marketers who spend at least 15% of their campaign on OOH showed significantly higher profit growth and short term sales than those who underspend on OOH. Of all “traditional” media, OOH shows the highest impact on online search and online activity (e.g. reposts).

As with classic Chinese propaganda posters, today’s OOH can both be relevant to the daily lives of consumers and reconnect them to cultural symbols of their youth. 

Spotify Billboards in London, 2019

If OOH has a clear focus and goal (rather than indulging in overtly abstract messages), it can both drive fame and inspire action. 

BBH’s Three Billboards for Grenfell Tower

With a focus on quality of design and message, posters can create desirability and resonance with consumers and have positive long term effects on brands.

When in 2019 the – rather musty – traditional Chinese skin rash cream brand  “999” launched a campaign to drive relevance with the Post-95 generation (Chinese born after 1995), it put the brand back on the map for millennials.

This was not only due to its rather odd brand extension into lipsticks (lipsticks were 2019’s hot item in China)  – but also because of the beautifully crafted posters, which drew a lot of praise.

Another example of OOH’s potential was Nike Women’s “Back to the Beginning” campaign. In order to raise awareness about the struggle of female athletes in China, Nike went hyperlocal and installed OOH in the exact spots female athletes overcame their struggle – from local running courts to university libraries.

If used well, OOH clearly still holds a tremendous potential for persuasion, in local communities as well as on the global stage. So perhaps the Communist Party should arrange a session with our friends at the IPA to catch up on the latest data on one of the oldest mediums around? Or perhaps the truth is they are successful enough already