This campaign is interesting on so many levels. Love Psy or hate him –he is certainly the celebrity incarnation of Marmite–he is a smart man.
Let’s recap Psy’s path so far: ‘Gangnam Style’ was released last July, reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and garnered one billion YouTube views by Dec 21st 2012; an internet first. This month he has released the follow-up, ‘Gentleman’ and appeared as the face of Bibigo restaurants’ new ad campaign.
What always stood out for me as a long-term acquaintance, and yes fan, of KPOP since 2009, was the way Psy’s success came about. The South Korean music industry has been trying to break into the American mainstream for some time. There have been English albums released by the Wonder Girls, Girl’s Generation, BoA, JYJ, and collaborations with Western artists (Wonder Girls & Akon, JYJ & Kanye). All of these outfits have great KPOP pedigree and have been at the top of their industry for years. None of them were particularly successful however, and certainly went unnoticed by the majority of Americans. On the other hand, Korean boy band Big Bang, completed a worldwide sell-out tour with dates in North America and the U.K late last year. This was the first KPOP tour of its kind. They also happen to be label-mates with Psy at YG entertainment.
I’m not attempting to chronicle KPOP at length here; many other articles have done this as the Western world has started to show an interest in Korea beyond nuclear matters. My point in mentioning the above is that the only KPOP artists, who have had a decent measure of success in the West so far, have done it in Korean. Big Bang have a few songs in English, but the majority of the set list during their world tour was in Korean. Bar a few sing-a-long phrases, ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Gentleman’, are also in Korean.
Psy made it clear early on as his success started to spread, that he would not change to appeal to a different audience. His English ability made it possible for him to connect with the English-speaking world, but he also used every opportunity to promote his homeland and native language. For his return with ‘Gentleman’ and now the ad campaign with Bibigo, he is just as intent. In fact, he is doing his best to emphasise his Korean nationality and spread awareness of South Korea.
Onto the campaign:
Bibigo- a chain of Korean restaurants started in 2010- is serious about popularising Korean food and culture in a way that has not yet been seen, with the goal of “1,000 restaurants in 20 countries by 2017.” This campaign is an unprecedented opportunity for both Psy and Bibigo and also a very timely occasion for the newly-expanding Korean ad agency behind it, Cheil Worldwide.
The ad is not at all typical of English advertising; it is unabashedly Korean in all aspects. It is not trying to change itself to appeal to a different audience, but demanding that the new audience accept it as is. Some things that stand out for me:
The ad is aimed at North American and British viewers, as this is where the Bibigo restaurants are located. Despite this, the ad is in Korean with English subtitles. Psy speaks good English, so the use of Korean is deliberate.
If you have ever watched a Korean variety show such as Star King or Running Man, you will know what I’m talking about. What’s more, Psy knows that some parts of the West will always see him as a slightly chubby, comical Asian man. He is aware of the stereotype. Apparently he is not out to change it, but to take advantage it. Trust me; the laugh is on viewers who do not realise this.
Moral of the story?
I do find it ironic, that not only has Psy been successful commercially by retaining his Korean roots and not trying to ‘westernize’ his music as other Korean artists have done, the Bibigo campaign has done exactly the same. Heavy celebrity endorsement is a staple of Korean advertising; it’s unusual to sell anything from fridges to fried chicken without the helping hand of a celebrity. As Cheil took its first steps onto the global stage, there was speculation if it could expand much beyond its biggest domestic client, Samsung, and compete in the same arena as other agencies. It is early days, but it looks like Cheil has learnt the lesson of those earlier forays by KPOP into Western markets: you don’t need to change beyond recognition to fit into an existing market. If you can bring something new to the party, do it.