China expert Jonathan Smith picks his Desert Island Ads

Jonathan Smith is CEO and founder of Hot Pot China, a China-focused digital and commercial consultancy.

Desert Island (China) ads

China is set to be the largest retail market by the end of this year. The opportunity is vast, and western brands are increasingly making plays to corner their share of the market.

Based on our knowledge of what it takes to engage the Chinese consumer, here are some of my favourite campaigns from global and Chinese brands who have delivered ground-breaking creative.

SK-II – Marriage Market Takeover

Many brands treat China as a purely commercial opportunity. They mistakenly see it as less sophisticated than western markets and fail to cater for the emotional needs of the Chinese consumer.

In this campaign, Japanese skincare brand SK-II tackled the taboo surrounding China’s ‘leftover women,’ the women who feel under enormous pressure to marry before turning 27. And unusually for Chinese advertising, the product doesn’t feature at all.

The ad is successful because it gets to the heart of changing attitudes in a China that is caught between the past and the present. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say it throws a spotlight on the issue and has helped trigger an important conversation. It cleverly harnessed the power of digital and prompted debate in a way that didn’t aggravate the censors.

The hugely emotional campaign video features women talking about the predicament they face; they are pursuing fast paced careers but are still expected to conform to certain norms. The film culminates in an emotional meeting at a public ‘marriage marketplace,’ where the women reclaim their status (they are ‘powerful’ not ‘leftover’), and earn the respect of their families.

The video received over two million views and won a Cannes Lion Glass award. It demonstrates how tackling a delicate societal issue can pay dividends when done sensitively.


In some circles sex is taboo in China, however the younger generations are more comfortable with online discussion and seeing the lighter side of sex and love. Durex has capitalised on this by creating a playful, modern forum for expression on Weibo.

Durex’s social-led strategy in China has seen the brand spend a decade poking fun at current events, and being socially reactive in order to gain traction with Chinese audiences.

For example, during the Beijing floods of 2011 a quick-minded social media exec donned Durex “overshoes” – leading to immediate engagement and viral sharing among the online community.

The brand has also played on deep-seated traditional Chinese culture by creating classical Chinese New Year greetings to be hung over doorways. The copy for one of these greetings playfully reads “wishing you safety on entering and exiting,” echoing similar text found in other more traditional greetings.

Durex and all its various campaigns deserve to be on this list because it’s one of the very few global brands who have managed to maintain brand consistency in China over a sustained period.

The Peppa Pig Movie – What is Peppa?

Home-grown Chinese talent often has an unfair reputation for being less creative than its international counterparts. I love this ad because it comes from Alibaba Pictures – one of the co-producers of the Peppa Pig film.

The ad takes the distinctly British character of Peppa Pig, and localises it in a beautifully acted, moving story, centred round Chinese New Year. The five minute film focuses on a grandfather, living in a rural village, who prepares for a holiday reunion with his son’s family, who now all live in a big city.

During his preparations, he finds out that his grandson wants ‘Peppa’ as a present, and he goes on a farcical, labyrinthine journey to find out what Peppa Pig looks like. He consults neighbours, shopkeepers, and sheepfarmers, before slowly, and painstakingly assembling his own Heath Robinson-esque Peppa Pig.

The ad works so well, because it touches on societal and cultural issues which many Chinese citizens will recognise. The dichotomy between the country and the city acts as a brilliant expose of the different worlds in China.

It’s funny, moving, and it champions the kind-heartedness and strength of family, all whilst building excitement and awareness of the Peppa Pig film.


Most people know about Weibo and WeChat, but fewer are aware of Douban – one of the original Chinese social media channels. The platform has been overtaken in numbers by the bigger players, but it has retained a place in the hearts of Chinese hipsters – and boasts a young, intellectual audience who use it to discuss literature, film, underground music etc.

This ad was designed to appeal to the target audience and avoids immediate gratification or bite-size 15-second attention grabbers. Instead Douban delivers a four minute feature film with high production values, one of which features the central character going on a cyclical journey which sees him travel from his room, through a battlefield, a hospital, a baby’s cot, and then finally into space – back to where his room is located.

It’s designed to pull in deep thinkers and create a sense of mystery, and it also does a great job of appealing to those that think differently.

Brewdog – Punk IPA

And finally, an ad which has absolutely nothing to do with China. It’ll be good to have some variety on the desert island!

Using the insight that three-quarters of the public doesn’t trust advertising, this campaign was brutally (and hilariously) simplistic. It’s a 30 second ad showing a can of beer set against the word ‘ADVERT’ with a high energy thrash metal soundtrack from Swedish band Meshuggah. It also ran OOH ads with tag lines like ‘ADVERT ON A BUS, DON’T BUY THE ADVERTISING.’

At Hot Pot, we are firm believers that great creative relies on having an innate understanding of your target audience. Very few brands would take major risks in China like Brewdog did in the UK, because they feel that they lack the relevant context which is needed to be bold.

All these campaigns, from China and elsewhere, show that when the right insights and partners are pulled together, it’s possible to create something exceptional that gives major cut-through and has a powerful emotional impact.

I look forward to seeing more creative campaigns come out of China in the future as western brands gain in knowledge and bravery.

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