How Plagiarism Is Killing The Chinese Advertising Industry

Poorly Made In China

Image credit to: Paul Midler

Plagiarism and China are two words that many people take hand in hand. Across nearly all Chinese industries from electronics (keep an eye out for the Chinese version of the iPad 2) to motoring, plagiarism is never far away.

A recent article by Andy Tsai discussed the phenomenon of plagiarism in the Chinese advertising industry. He cites a Sina Weibo posting by “乃東樂” (Nǎi dōng lè) in which the netizen reveals the Chinese advertising industry’s habit of plagiarising (aka “shanzhai”ing) work. He wants more advertising people and companies to understand the concept that plagiarising is cheating and calls for everyone to respect original work.

He certainly makes a good point. Here are some examples:

In the mad world of advertising, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It’s painful to watch the Shanzhai adverts, and it will no doubt anger Chinese agencies. It gives the industry an awful reputation, it seems people can get away with “stealing” others hard work, not only without any consequences but also the copycats will probably be profiting off it too (at least in the short term).

What is of the greatest concern is that there are some ad agency bosses in China who are actually allowing blatantly plagiarised work out of their agency doors. It’s even more shocking because it stands against everything creative work should be.

I can only assume that perhaps Chinese clients are a tough bunch and have an unfounded assumption that re-using a successful idea will automatically give them the same success as the original had. This is far from the truth, Chinese consumers are not stupid, they can see a copycat commercial from a mile off. Here’s a great example posted on the main chinaSMACK site, where Lenovo of all companies rips-off a Fanta advert from Japan:

Shanzhai Chinese ‘Lenovo’ Commercial

Original Japanese ‘Fanta’ Commercial

The Chinese Consumer

If you read the Chinese reactions in the article, you will see how a number of Chinese netizens resent this kind of activity. Especially when the Chinese copycat commercials are of a lot lower quality than the originals. Should you be a regular reader, you will have seen that the Chinese ad industry is in fact producing some fantastic creative work and it’s such a shame that Shanzhai culture has infiltrated a sector that has creativity at its heart.

In saying all this, I must stress that it is good to borrow ideas and use them in new and interesting ways, it’s also more than ok to parody work (there some hilarious and well executed examples of this) – but plagiarising is plain wrong.

Can this kind of plagiarism be prevented in China?

My knowledge of Chinese law is pretty poor to say the least, but I know one thing is for certain – tighter restrictions need to be brought into play. To give you a flavour of how things work regarding Chinese Law and Advertising, read this article from the wise folk over at China Law Insight.

So where does this leave the Chinese Ad industry?

It’s not all doom and gloom, almost 99.99% of recent ad campaigns in the mainland are original creative pieces. Agencies can help themselves by educating clients about the benefits of orginal and quality creative, and the dangers of using work of others.

Thankfully, as we have seen, Mainland consumer attitudes to Shanzhai commercials are also changing for the better and they are beginning to see these knock-off ads for what they are…

Lazy and insulting.

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  • BaoBei

    Is sofa meaningful if it’s on one of these advertising articles??

    • Canadian_Skies

      Notice how the post is so overly structured to defend Chinese advertising while the issue itself is Chinese advertising?

      … I smell a rat.

  • Sanjay

    Not just advertising. Even international magazines like
    Harper’s Bazaar China :

  • I salute the plagiarism. Agencies do it all the time.

  • Dahlain

    This is nothing new. Been going on in China and other places for YEEAAARRSSSS

  • Clancy

    I’ve been doing design and advertising work in China for years. The problem is not lazy creatives sneaking plagiarized work past their clueless bosses. Quite the opposite. The creatives want to do original work but aren’t allowed to. The bosses INSIST that they plagiarize.

    I know designers who have quit their jobs in frustration because they were never permitted to do anything creative. Of course they’re the minority. Most Chinese designers had all their creative instinct crushed out of them by the time they were out of college.

    It makes good business sense to plagiarize in China. If it’s an effective campaign, it is guaranteed to make money. And the risk is almost zero, especially if you plagiarize an ad from outside China.

    • Hi Clancy,

      That’s a fascinating insight. Thank you for sharing.

      My question is why is their this culture for creative directors to “crush” original creativity? Is it really purely down to reducing risk?

      From speaking to some others who have worked in the Chinese Ad industry I know the Chinese Government has a major say in the creative work that is produced. It would be great to hear more about your experiences.


      • GodsHammer

        “My question is why is their this culture for creative directors to “crush” original creativity?”
        Are you joking? Nature AND Nurture within China both shun the creative.
        Nurture- They’ve been rubbing out creative instinct for eons over here. Copying is rewarded and definitely expected for taking a proven shortcut shows that you are a resourceful and efficient student/worker. This starts from the time that a child goes to a classroom with 70 children right through their working years.
        Nature- One could argue that it’s almost a genetic trait at this point within the Mainland Chinese populace. After most regime/dynasty changes there have been wholesale purgings of the last regimes scholars and cultural icons. The most recent and most brutal would be the CCP under Mao in which musicians, artists, writers and prominent scholars were executed en masse. You will definitely cut out creativity this way, not only in diplayed behaviour, but also in thought process.

  • Clancy

    Workers communicate over QQ or MSN, even with clients.

    Yes the government looking over your shoulder all the time has an effect, but usually only if you’re somehow working in cooperation with the government somehow. They’re amazingly strict. Also the government dictates what you can depict or say in the newspaper advertisements. Recently I had ad copy sent back for a rewrite because I said Yale was a “top-tier” university.

  • Clancy

    Argh my post got truncated!

  • Justin

    Wow, somehow China has managed to sully the good name of the advertising industry. Oh wait, the advertising industry does not have a good name and most ideas for ads are derivative in one form or another anyhow. Advertising is the career that the cleverest guys in fraternities go into.

    • David

      And I suppose you think it’s the real smart kids that do what? Finance? Spend all their days making rich people richer and contributing less than nothing do the societal good? Get off your high horse. Every career has smart people and “the clever guys from the frat house”. You can’t sum up an industry in a sentence. Just makes YOU look like the frat boy.

  • Bill

    What’s interesting is that these “copied” products are released months prior to the actual product and is actually more capable and more advanced than the actual product.

  • Josey Wales

    You can trace this all back to the fact that Chinese schools and universities do not encourage creativity but instead concentrate on rote learning and memorisation, that is why they are incapable of thinking up original ideas.

  • Porcus

    Who cares if ad agencies choose to plagerize? The people watching the ads do! And when they realize that the company trying to sell them a product does not respect their intelligence, they will take their money somewhere else (unless the product dominates the competition) in which case; problem solved. No need for human intervention where there is already a natural equalization method.

  • Macy

    Not only do Chinese advertisers do this, but there are blogs and websites that do this everyday. There is this one website I stumbled upon that seemed nice at first with holiday gift ideas, but it turned out every article on there is copied from somewhere else. I tried to shame the website into realizing they cannot do this by commenting on it. Here is a website, based out of China, which copies articles to promote the sale of Christmas items to the West. People reading the website are not dumb, they can figure out straight away the articles were copied from somewhere else:

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