Everyone and their grandmother in China had an idea of what 刻不容缓 (a Chinese idiom that means 'brook no delay') signifies. That is, until copywriters came along and played around with characters for the sake of homophonic creativity.
At least that is how the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) sees it, in its 27 Nov notice.
In their eyes, wordplay does not amount to creative poetry as advertising folks may argue but rather "cultural and linguistic confusion," due to the "use of non-standard language" and "indiscriminate tampering of idioms".
The SARFT notice demands a strict adherence to "standard" language, calls for every provincial-level broadcaster to perform a check for "correctness", and to strongly suppress "non-conforming" programs.
For example, the idiom 尽善尽美 (jin shan jin mei) means "to reach the acme of perfection", but a commercial by Shanxi Tourism Board altered it slighly to become 晋善晋美 (jin shan jin mei) which sounded exactly the same as before, only that the first Chinese character 尽 was replaced with 晋 — a one-word abbreviation for the Shanxi province (see left).
The 'brook no delay' idiom mentioned above, 刻不容缓 (ke bu rong huan), has been distorted to 咳不容缓 (ke bu rong huan) in a Tianjin medicine advert by substituting 刻 "instant" with 咳 "cough". Again, the second phrase sounds deliberately similar to the first, but has a renewed meaning: "cannot be delayed by a cough".
It is difficult to track down what campaigns provoked the government action. The example above actually aired in 1995, and was mentioned in the April edition of the 新闻知识 (roughly translated to 'News Knowledge') publication back then.
Today, in an uncoordinated move seeming to belabor the issue, Ogilvy & Mather launched a campaign (see right) for Shangri-La’s Sanya Resort & Spa called 乐在奇中 (le zai qi zhong meaning to “find fun in the odd”) — once again a homonym game exchanging the character 奇 for 其 in the original idiom 乐在其中 (le zai qi zhong meaning "enjoy yourself").
So despite witticisms from the advertising industry, this directive (if enforced) may unwittingly be the beginning of a Chinese version of George Orwell's 'Newspeak' from his Nineteen Eighty-Four novel, in which the expressiveness of language is, well, non-existent.
After all, what are puns and homophones really, other than the irregular use of language that causes "cultural and linguistic confusion"? Netizens have jokingly termed this directive as yet another effort from the "Ministry of Thought Control", as with previous (ridiculous but rumoured) rules, such as how TV actresses in dramas can only love one man.
But without serious financial penalties, these rules are often ignored, even if the State Adminstration promises to "deal severely with those found in grave violation of the rules (of proper language)".
Although most industry observers Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke with deemed such explicit requirements about linguistic amusement a little silly, the rules supposedly result from a large number of complaints from television viewers to the SARFT. Chinese kids have been misled by TV ads, a consequence that showed in their mastery of the written language (see cartoon).
The perplexing official announcement, according to Edward Chatterton, partner at law firm DLA Piper, does not introduce any new law but is simply intended to clarify how officials will interpret existing laws.
"The notice does not therefore break new ground. If it is to have any effect, the State Administration will have to put time and resources into ensuring that advertisers comply with it," said Chatterton.
"This is likely to be a hard job, which will require the State Administration to proactively police advertisements. Given the competing priorities faced by the government, the notice may well be honoured more in the breach."
The use of puns and wordplay is incredibly prevalent in Chinese culture generally and has become particularly widespread on social media. Linguistic subversion has always been part of political dissidence in the country and always will be because the homophone-rich language is ideal for mischievous wordplay, while allowing the perpetuator to play the innocent at the same time.
For advertising and branding, however, the impression one might get of such ad copy is "lowbrow", even if the homonyms have a direct relationship with the brand's image. A high-end brand with a more serious tone and manner, may only make people think "this brand has no style" with such playful terms.
Gordon Shu, ECD at TBWA Shanghai, is one creative who is for the idea of regulating the use of Chinese language in ads. "To be honest, I think Chinese characters are wonderful in themselves and full of the power of tradition," Shu said.
Changes to Chinese idioms with characters that sound alike produce "interesting effects", and may be considered "clever", but he has his reservations. "Copywriting is only one creative way. If you just use the the best puns or play word games or invent internet slang, these creative ideas would be too narrow. SARFT's intention is good. If you find that you need to play word games to get a good idea, then that idea itself is problematic."
The creativity of copywriters does not rely only on puns, added Vladimir Djurovic, CEO of Labbrand. "Some of the most memorable ads are more about creating new rhyming catchphrases, such as 牙好胃口就好 ("With good teeth comes a good appetite") for a local toothpaste brand under the Liby Group; the more recent 吃完喝完嚼益达 ("Chew Extra after extra food or drink") for a Wrigley's gum brand," he said .
Copywriter woes aside, this is not a mindless prohibition issed by authorities, according to a more politically-astute industry commentator who preferred to remain anonymous.
"Anything the communist party does is absolutely not what it looks like on the surface. There must be a political purpose behind it. Chairman Xi may look like he is liberal, but his purpose is actually to consolidate political power. In this information era, having a centralised government is not easy, but it starts with cleaning up the creative industry since such a government has no need for 'people's creativity'. Once you simplify language, you can simplify thoughts."
The task of interpreting the double meanings of puns used to fall upon the commoners, now it's up to the industry how it wants to perceive this order.
Jane Lin-Baden, CEO of Isobar China, sees opportunity rather than restriction. Under the official premise of "protecting Chinese culture" and "conservation of Putonghua", mass media will oddly no longer be able to respond to real-life consumers immersed in the intricacies of that culture. This is more unfavourable to TV and radio, and from another perspective, the digital, branded-content and social spaces will become a larger playground for advertisers in the short term, she speculated.
"Currently, digital and product content is outside of the specified limitations. You can still say "高富帅" (nickname for guys with a cluster of qualities like being tall, rich and handsome) in online advertising, though not on television," she said.
This poses a bigger challenge not to creativity, but to integration, Lin-Baden emphasised.