Ad Storytelling In The U.S. And China During The Pandemic: A Comparison

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, December 29, 2020

As Robert McKee, the well-known American screenwriter, said, “a story expresses how and why life changes” (Fryer, 2003). At a very young age, I have been curious about why life is the way it is, and from there, I came across many stories that teach me how to understand myself and the people around me.

On a typical night in April 2020, I was watching TV news from the U.S. and Chinese media in a hotel where I had to stay because my college was closed for the pandemic. As a Chinese student who came to the U.S., I did not expect that the COVID-19 had been hitting both China and the United States so severely, and my last year in college changed dramatically. However, what I did not expect the most was how China and the U.S. portrayed the global pandemic so differently in the media that it prompted me to wonder why this difference could happen when two countries were both under the worldwide health crisis. I started to combine my major in marketing and my passion for storytelling, and after looking through many recent COVID-19 advertisements and marketing campaigns, I decided to explore the differences between China and the U.S in COVID-19 storytelling ads.



The purpose of my research is to examine how storytelling, specifically advertising commercials in China and the United States, reflects their cultural differences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the sampling, I conducted four in-depth interviews with Chinese professionals, from large corporations to marketing agencies and start-up companies, and gained detailed knowledge about the marketing and advertising world during the pandemic. I found three major takeaways during the interviews. First, we found that companies in China tend to be conservative about the production of COVID-related advertisements. Second, even though not many Chinese marketing agencies made ads for the pandemic, they provided support for local businesses through free public service announcements. Third, many online channels, such as live streaming e-commerce, online group buying, and social media influencers, become extremely popular and prevalent because of the pandemic in China.

Since there are a limited number of Chinese and American storytelling ads during COVID-19, I used purposive sampling and selected ten Chinese commercials and twenty U.S. commercials closely related to the pandemic. I adopted the comparative content analysis that examined individual words that made up the stories in the COVID-19 commercials. I proposed six hypotheses based on Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions (1980) and Lin’s research on cultural differences in Chinese and American Television commercials (2001).  

As I started the content analysis, I identified nine categories to capture the main characteristics of the COVID-19 commercials: Heroic, Kindness, Unite, Gratitude, Failure, People, Difficult Times, Optimism, and Health. I then categorized the words of each commercial into these nine categories. Words in the same category were either synonyms or similar concepts of the category. Through the content analysis, I found that U.S. and Chinese COVID-19 commercials followed their cultural characteristics in most cases with two exceptions. As I expected from the analysis, Chinese commercials are more family-oriented and used more heroic expressions than U.S. commercials. Additionally, Chinese commercials pay more attention to positivity and optimism and emphasize the appeals of kindness than U.S. ads.

However, two exceptions that were opposite of what I expected emerged from the stereotypical view of China and the U.S. While U.S. TV commercials showed more individualistic content than Chinese commercials from Lin’s research (2001), U.S. commercials contain more collectivist content than Chinese commercials during the pandemic. This disparity suggests that while Americans often pay much attention to personal achievement and benefits, U.S. commercials choose to show the collectivist side of the American people during the pandemic, especially for the healthcare workers and first responders who are trying to help save as many patients as possible in this unprecedented time.

The second exception is that even as the U.S. has been suffering in the pandemic more than China, Chinese commercials display more health- and COVID-related content than U.S. commercials. Since there are far more confirmed cases and deaths in the U.S. than in China because of the pandemic, one would expect that U.S. ads will show more content about health practices or the virus. However, this is not the case for COVID-19 commercials. One explanation is that factors such as the ignorance of the COVID-19, the recent racism violence, and the 2020 political campaign could overshadow the importance and severity of the global pandemic, leading to less health-related content in U.S. COVID-19 commercials.

Through this research, I hope to achieve three goals. First, the research findings are more likely to be among the most recent studies on cultural differences in U.S. and Chinese commercials during COVID-19. This timely finding could help marketers save time and have a clear sense of both the Chinese and U.S. advertising world under the impact of COVID-19. Second, this research is a strong addition to the past research on cross-cultural comparative analysis of U.S. and Chinese commercials. Academic scholars could benefit from the cultural differences reflected in U.S. and Chinese ads. Third, students who study the related field, such as marketing and advertising, or are passionate about the topic, could learn more about the cultural differences between the U.S. and China by analyzing the COVID-19 commercials.

This research project is changing my perceptions of how I, as an international student from China, view cultural differences between two countries through a lens of storytelling marketing. I learned that cultural differences between China and the U.S. had profound and lasting effects on the two countries' commercials. At the same time, I realized how large crises like the COVID-19 could suddenly disrupt some of these deep-rooted cultural differences and lead to commercials beyond our expectations. This project offered me an opportunity to combine my interests both in marketing and storytelling and helped me understand that storytelling marketing is a way to learn about a company and a culture to which it belongs. 

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