While puns and wordplay are technically not allowed in mainland China, Hong Kong creatives find them to be irresistible and effective—most of the time.
Puns and wordplay are a part of everyday life in Hong Kong society. Cantonese, spoken by 89.5 percent of the population, is written in traditional Chinese characters, but is richer in tones and retains archaic phonetic elements Putonghua has lost. Certain puns work for both Cantonese and Putonghua due to their shared written forms, such as the Chinese name for TripAdvisor, 猫途鷹 (pronounced maau-tou-ying in Cantonese and maotuying in Putonghua). This plays on the brand's logo by inserting the character for a journey, 途 (tou / tu), into the Chinese for owl, 猫頭鷹 (maau-tau-ying / maotouying).
However, spoken language is a different matter. “Cantonese has nine tones compared to the four tones in Putonghua," Stephen Chung, creative partner of homegrown ad agency Secret Tour Hong Kong, told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "The richer intonation of Cantonese allows more room for homophones, giving creatives a broader canvas to play with.”
The litany of similar-looking characters on the signage of local shops and eateries is a delight to native wordsmiths, but this richness is lost on those who don't speak or read the language.
For example, across the city, numerous shops selling rice porridge are called 好满粥 (hou mun-zuk in Cantonese: 'very full congee') or other variations of 满粥. These are plays on the almost identical sound of 粥 (rice porridge) and the second charachter in the phrase 满足, meaning satisfaction. However, those looking for a nice bowl of porridge may do well to beware of signs that show an image of a foot, as there are a few reflexology centres and massage parlours that are named 好满足. This is another playful combination as the character 足 also means 'foot'.
Secret Tour recently launched a homophone-based campaign for Maxim’s chicken rice range, Maxim's MX Sir Chicken (美心MX Sir滑雞). By adding 'sir' to 滑雞 (waat-gai—'succulent chicken') the slogan makes a pun of the the way one says 'playground slide' in Cantonese: 'Sir滑梯' (sir-waat-tai). This is played to the full in the campaign video (below), which shows a piece of chicken gliding down a slide. At the same time, 'sir' is also a bilingual pun—denoting that the chicken is so tasty that it deserves the honorific 'Sir' title.
Phonology aside, Chung said wordplay is very locale-specific, given that the nuances in languages can only be appreciated within a certain context and community.
“We don’t usually look out for puns when designing a campaign, the idea usually pops up by chance,” said Chung. “If you want to create something that touches the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people, wordplay is one of the ways to do it, but it does not have to be the only way. Ultimately, the puns have to be easily understood to resonate among the target audience.”
Across the border, the mainland Chinese government slapped a ban on puns in 2014 to prevent “cultural and linguistic confusion”. Despite the restrictions, Chinese brands appear to still operate with much poetic license, although a fast-food chain, Call a Chick, was investigated by the authorities for violations of pornography laws as its name is a euphemism for hiring a prostitute in Chinese.
Esther Wong, executive creative director of TBWA Hong Kong, said wordplay is culture-centric; what works well in the mainland may not translate to Hong Kong, and vice versa.
"Creatives working on puns have to be responsive and reactive to the local culture and trends," she said. "The wordplay has to speak to the right target audience."
Wong cited a 2015 J. Walter Thompson campaign for a Bayer product addressing vaginitis (陰道炎, pronounced yam-dou yim). The agency created a male Korean character with a similar-sounding name, 金道賢 (gam dou yin), and delivered a comedic two-part video campaign called 金道賢之戀, The Love Story of Kim Do Hyun.
"The video was very well received as its targeted group of young women love Korean dramas," said Wong. "The pun was a clever way to raise awareness on a health issue that many young women do not feel comfortable discussing openly."
Easily the most ambitious wordplay campaign in recent memory was a 2015 effort by HKTVMall, which created a separate pun-based billboard for every one of the city's 51 MTR stations (see "HKTVmall blankets MTR stations with punny humour"). [Sorry, we're not going to explain all those puns for non-speaking readers. We suggest you find a patient friend. -Ed.]
Seeing as how even pharma brands such as Bayer and Pfizer are stepping up their game on puns, Wong does not believe that it is a low-brow approach, and there should not be hard and fast rules about when to apply wordplay, or what audiences might be receptive to it.
"Luxury brands have largely not ventured into wordplay in the local language, but it does not mean that it cannot be done," she said.
Chung said the pitfall of wordplay is clichés. Effectiveness heavily depends on the ability of creatives to play the words well.
There have also been cases where creativity backfired.
For example, local organisation Youth Square attempted to brand a youth-development programme '我係沸青' (pronounced ngo hai fai-tsing, and meaning, roughly, 'I am a bubbling youth'). The campaign was widely panned because 沸青 sounds identical to 廢青, meaning 'wasted youth'—a rather inauspicious association. The Hong Kong government, which commissioned the project, was criticised for wasting money on a "garbage" campaign.
With social media a double-edged sword that helps a good or bad campaign go viral almost immediately, Wong urged brands to monitor vigilantly and prepare a crisis-management plan if need be.
"The puns are harmless on their own as long as they match the brand identity, but creatives should be able to pre-empt the response from the audience " said Wong.
Also, the editor apologises for any trauma caused by the terrible headline on this article.