BEIJING — Some nine years after China lifted a ban on advertising, the communist nation is staging its first international advertising conference to lure foreigners into the world's largest market.
Some 1,400 foreign and Chinese delegates are signed up to attend the June 16-20 Third World Advertising Congress, billed as the biggest commercial conference to be held in China and the first of its kind anywhere.
The almost 100 speakers include some of the world's top advertising, communications and business executives such as Pepsi-Cola President Roger Enrico and John Eger, chairman of the International Media Commission and communications adviser to former U.S. Presidents Ford and Nixon.
"At a time when China is beginning to make its presence felt in the world market, this congress will provide an excellent opportunity for businessmen from outside China to learn more about the China market," said Humayun Gauhar, publisher of the London-based South Magazine which is co-sponsoring the event.
Chinese officials say the congress is "viewed with importance" by the country's leaders, who have allowed it to be staged in the prestigious Great Hall of the People opposite the mausoleum of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Chinese speakers at the conference are expected to stress Beijing's repeated assurances that its 5-month-old crackdown on capitalist influences will not affect the country's policy of opening to the outside world.
The Chinese sponsors, the China National Advertising Assn., say it will provide a valuable opportunity for Beijing to learn sophisticated Western techniques to improve its infant advertising industry.
Under Mao's rule, advertising was vilified as capitalist, but since the ban was lifted in 1978, it has become widespread on television, radio, newspapers and billboards, and advertising expenditure has increased by 50% annually to almost $230 million last year.
Even the People's Liberation Army--a bastion of political purity--has gotten in on the act in recent months, publishing advertisements for its own brand of beauty cream, which it claims can cure almost every conceivable facial blemish.
But many Chinese say they pay little attention to the crude domestic promotions, preferring the slick Western advertisements that accompany imported television programs such as the Super Bowl and, since last autumn, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.
CBS broke the ground for foreign access to Chinese television in 1984 with an agreement to provide 64 hours of American programming in exchange for 320 minutes of advertising time.
With rates at around $25,000 for a 60-second spot, compared to $500,000 in the United States, several foreign companies including Eastman Kodak, Boeing, Colgate-Palmolive and Philips Electronics, have displayed their wares to China's estimated 250 million viewers, most of whom cannot afford or have no access to the products concerned.
But no matter how poor, China's population of more than 1 billion--the largest market in the world--has proved an irresistible lure to many overseas firms.
Foreign advertising in China--led by Japan, the United States and West Germany, in that order--has grown by 15% annually since 1979, although it accounts for less than 6% of the country's overall advertising.
Public relations activities by foreign firms--which before 1985 were largely confined to news conferences and advertising--also are expanding. Hill & Knowlton and Burson Marsteller have made their official debuts in China in the past couple of years.
Ads for alcohol and cigarettes, as well as anything offensive to Chinese moral and political tastes, are banned. Still, officials say they welcome more foreign advertising despite Beijing's current campaign against consumerism.
"There is no contradiction between advertising and the spirit of hard struggle," said Wang Bo, secretary general of the China National Advertising Assn. "Hard struggle does not mean you have to adopt simple tastes."