SHANGHAI - Crazy ideas in China require not just an embrace of creativity, but also an element of bravery, especially in outdoor advertising, where the visibility of the medium puts pressure on advertisers to be politically correct and stay out of trouble. Case in point: Xiao Zhu (小竹, 'Little Bamboo' in Chinese).
With China's skies often shrouded in haze, air quality indexes frequently reach severe levels. Xiao Zhu, a year-old air purifier brand, wanted to stand out in a market that was as congested as China's heavily polluted air (a search on Taobao turns up 101,800 air-purification products from at least 23 brands including Sharp, TCL, Philips, Midea, FuseWins, Haier, Blueair, Diqua and Xiaomi).
According to researchers at Tsinghua University, the burning of coal is responsible for between 50 to 70 per cent of the air pollution in some of China's heavily industrialised areas. Y&R, Xiao Zhu's creative agency, decided to call out the culprit by using the smoke spewing from factory smokestacks as an outdoor medium.
The project involved projecting pictures of choking and crying children, bought from stock photo libraries, onto the smoke plumes along with the Xiao Zhu logo and a message: "don't let a future of asphyxia happen".
The video documenting the acts in Hangzhou and Shanghai delivered more than 17.3 million views and a 38 per cent increase in brand awareness in the week of 7 April when the campaign launched.
The campaign went on to win seven Lions at Cannes last month, including a Gold in the outdoor category. Sales of Xiao Zhu air purifiers increased 20 per cent in the past quarter, according to the company.
Ong Kien Hoe, executive creative director of Y&R Shanghai, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that his team would not have been able to pull off the campaign without "such a brave client", referring to Xiao Zhu founder Ye Xiang Bin (叶享斌).
"It is risky on two fronts: using pictures of kids (even if they were stock pictures) and hijacking the smoke as an advertising medium without any permission from the factories," he said. "We were worried that the factory owners will disrupt our 'production', and we had to be very careful".
Handsome Wong, ex-CD at Y&R Shanghai, who was involved in the campaign before he quit in May 2015, recalled one incident at the Hangzhou Ban Shan Power Plant (杭州半山发电厂). Local police and security guards approached the team's truck with suspicion to enquire about the assembly of light-beam projectors. Seeing that the group was not technically trespassing on factory premises, and then understanding the intent behind the light projections, they went away, to the relief of Ong and Wong.
Still, it was precarious to use a sensitive topic to latch onto in order to break the new brand into the air-purifier market. "The client is not big, so it's all about the word-of-mouth effect for them," said Ong.
The publicity on environmental issues was exactly what got Under The Dome (穹顶之下), a self-funded documentary about China's overwhelming air pollution, pulled and blocked from domestic websites by Chinese authorities in February, two months before Xiao Zhu's bold outdoor stunt. The documentary took Chai Jing (柴静), a former China Central Television news anchor, one year to investigate and produce.
When the topic of Chai's documentary influencing the campaign idea was broached in a group interview, Ye was less adamant than Ong about distancing the campaign from the documentary.
"It is the factories that are mostly causing pollution, not the government," Ong said. "We don't think that selling air purifiers can solve the problem. We just want to say that the air in China is not good and we want to improve it somehow, even if the improvement is just indoors. That Chai Jing thing is too big for us".
While Ye said, "We would like to use a cultural lens to think about environmental issues, and that thinking is evident in our product that utilises bamboo even in the filtration material inside it. Chai plays a role of promoting industrial change, while we see ourselves as putting that into practice."