Inception Debuts In China…With Google Recruitment Ads

Google China recruitment Ad: Search "create".

China only allows a set number of foreign films to be shown in Chinese movie theatres each year. One of those spots were wasted on The Expendables (…which, yes, I saw.)), but another was fortunately granted to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, arguably one of 2010’s largest blockbusters. Why? I don’t know, as it can be difficult to figure out what movies China’s Film Group deems suitable for Chinese audiences, especially given that Inception made it onto China big screens unscathed by Chinese censors. I think it might have to do with the special place Leonardo DiCaprio has in the heart of every Chinese person ever since Titanic. But that’s just an educated guess.

While it was good news for everyone in China to not miss out on one of the most talked about movies of the year, it did suck that the movie came out nearly 1.5 months later than in America, where I had first seen it during my recent summer sabbatical. Nevertheless, my gal and I went to watch it last Friday, the day after its Thursday release here in China to make sure she doesn’t miss out.  I also, of course, wanted to see how she’d interpret the movie and all of its obvious and not-so-obvious twists and interpretations1.

But nevermind the movie because this post is actually about the advertisements shown before the movie in Chinese cinemas. It was a double feature, two commercials played back to back. I had noted them, even commented about them to my girlfriend, but then completely forgotten about them until today when reminded by this article on Campaign Asia-Pacific2. Here are the recruitment ads that were shown:

From Campaign Asia-Pacific:

After a long period of tug-of-war between Google and the Chinese government, Google has been aggressively refreshing its public image through a wide range of ad campaigns across various media platforms recently.

Yes, exactly, my immediate reaction to the ads3 were that they were a clever “soft-power” approach to rebuilding Google’s brand and — more importantly — relevance in China. Why? Because however we want to interpret Google’s shut down of its search engine at the beginning of this year after a protracted game of chicken with the Chinese government, Google’s image and presence in China has arguably been hurt. Their internet search market share has dropped, Baidu’s has gained, and they’ve lost business partners and accounts over the uncertainty of their continued availability in the mainland market. While the hubbub has all died down, the resulting calm isn’t necessarily a positive thing for Google, as it is arguably smelling like — no better way to put it — irrelevance. It is as if they’ve made their decision and the world, here, is moving on without them.

These two lively advertisements look like a good way to regain some Chinese public mindshare. They do at least two things:

  1. They feature Google’s core consumer services and products: internet search, maps, mobile (Android), and — of course — machine translation. The flipping rundown of other services near the end isn’t bad either, on the first version.
  2. They feature a very multi-ethnic workforce and workplace, reinforcing the appeal of and aspiration for working at an “international” company like Google.

Google China recruitment Ad: Google Earth.Google China recruitment Ad: Google Street View.

There’s a certain “this is what we do, here’s us doing it, and look, you can be part of us like these Chinese people here” feel about it. The music is better in the first one.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one to think this. From Campaign Asia-Pacific:

The move has people guessing that the online giant might be looking to boost its operations in China.

Philip Kuai, director of product and strategy at AdChina, said the target audience for the advertisements include the Chinese government, prospective employees, Google users and fans as well as advertisers.

“To link Google with the movie itself can be a buzz, indicating Google is trying hard to be hot again in China,” he said.

Well, at least we agree on the ad targeting prospective employees and Google users/fans. I didn’t think of advertisers initially but I suppose that could work too. The advertisements could be interpreted as a “we’re still here, come do business with us” message to advertisers that were previously scared off, but…I’m not so sold on that being effective but I’m willing to buy it being just one small part of a larger effort.

However, I’m not sold at all on the Chinese government being the target audience for these commercials. The Chinese government doesn’t care, with the advertisement or with Google advertising this advertisement. It’s fine with Google hiring people. It loves having its citizens employed. It depends on its citizens being employed, so by all means, recruit. It’s also fine with Google showing off its services, especially those that remain accessible in China, because it means the government didn’t kick out Google and Google is still around. What poignant message would Google be trying to send to the Chinese government with these ads? I dunno, I think Mr. Kuai here might be stretching it to imply some sort of political significance that isn’t really there. I mean, I suppose Google could be saying to the government “you may not like us, but we’re going win your people over and then we’ll see who wins this war!”

Google China recruitment Ad: Join us and let us create together.

Maybe, but let’s just keep it simple and recognize that these ads are good publicity for Google, a great way to reach the demographic that is most likely to be attracted to Google and what it offers, both as a service-provider and as a potential career-provider.

Speaking of career-provider, again from Campaign Asia-Pacific:

Bryce Whitwam, general manager of Wunderman China, said the idea on a media placement level is innovative, but argued that the campaign is fairly average from a creative point of view.

“I wonder how many people will be inspired to join Google after watching this advertisement,” he said. “People go to movies to be entertained and advertisements need to work harder than they do on other channels.”

“In other words, can I create at Google China or am I just implementing stuff that’s created in California for China? The ‘what’s in it for me?’ needs to be answered,” he added.

Agree that the placement is interesting, the creative is average, and that advertisements may need to work harder to entertain in movie placements than other channels.

Disagree on the question that “needs to be answered”. In an environment of widespread social anxiety over low graduate employment rates and where the recent news about Google China has been whether or not it’ll still be operating in the country and whether or not the employees will face government retaliation much less still have a job, I just don’t think the “freedom to create” concern is going to be really high up there for Google China’s prospective Chinese applicants. I’m sure that might be true for some, maybe even former Google China president Lee Kaifu, but even the most aspirational, internationalized, modern members of the up-and-coming Chinese generation are for the most part still pretty practical people. The pool of prospective employees for Google China is very different from the pool found in Silicon Valley where Google employees are turning down $500k cash bonuses to stay for a single year to leave for Facebook. So are their concerns. “Freedom to create” is not the question that Google needs to answer.

But enough disagreement with those advertising and market research industry guys. Bottom line is the agreement on these Google recruitment ads definitely being notable for their timing and placement ahead of a highly anticipated movie like Inception. Google is communicating that it hasn’t abandoned the mainland Chinese market entirely, and appealing to its workforce, even a very small technologically-inclined subset of it, is an interesting long-term play for staying in the minds of Chinese consumers and thus staying relevant in the world’s largest internet market.

Google China recruitment Ad: Google employee faces.

  1. POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING: Unfortunately, she only concluded that Cobb was still in a dream, asked why in a disappointed sort of way (as in, that sucks for Cobb), and kinda left it at that. I was underwhelmed, given that I had been anxious to engage in animated discussion. []
  2. via Thomas Morffew, thanks []
  3. I saw the top one, and I think it was played twice. []


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  1. Fred

    Nice piece. I saw the film in Peace Cinema by People’s Square in Shanghai today — did note the Google ads, in time-honoured China TV style it seemed to be the exact same ad played back to back. Or did I miss something?
    Just wanted to point out that something did seem to be snipped from Inception at one stage, there was an obvious jump and the sound went a bit funny. My wife speculates it was a sex scene of some kind. Overall it was the usual experience that reminded me why I so rarely go to the cinema here — ads played at incredibly high volume beforehand, people kicking me out without letting me watch more than a minute of the credits to check some cast member names. Inception great, Shanghai cinemas still lousy.
    Rant over. Off topic I know, sorry.

    • You know, I’m not sure anything was cut. I did see Inception both in the States and here in China and I don’t remember anything missing. However, I do often see what appears to be bad “cuts” when watching movies in the threatres here. Given the fact that we know China does censor stuff at times, we’re tempted to jump to that conclusion but I think there might be another plausible explanation: someone did a poor job of transitioning from one reel to another. I noted the same jumpiness between scenes in Aftershock when watching in the cinemas and since that movie probably didn’t get any censoring after post-production, I’m thinking it is just the transitioning between reels.

  2. {laugh} This is just too funny – given all the hoopla for the last couple of years. No matter which way this situation is spun – the bottom line is that Google is not going away, and more importantly, P.R. China is not going the way of DPRK.

    Going to be interesting to see what fruit spawns from these seeds – both in the next generation of CCP and in the general public.

  3. Kai, I was disappointed that you did not draw the unconscious connection between the techno-theme of Inception and the underlining potential psychology of the Google ad agency. Maybe I missed the point of the movie and what ad agencies ultimately want to accomplish, but the idea of Google trying to rewrite history into an acceptable rendition by planting insights in the form of ads is just too irresistible to pass up.

  4. lolz

    A win/win for everyone, save a few extremists on both sides.

  5. Bai ren

    Ad placement good… Dont know if I agree or disagree. Just read some articles on Alibaba and ebay recently and one issue cited for ebay’s failier was its inability to communicate with the market -they did ads online while Taobao ads began on tv. Are movie theaters a middle ground, where the audience is selectively small, but properly targeted trend setters and followers?
    The first ad made my jaw drop, wtf the map app? good on google to use that to connect with modernization sentiments, who knows maybe the market will demand it more and public polling democratic china will have to give more lee way to keep gmaps up to date in the country.
    love how it was what google is giving china, jobs! its not come be our customer, its yeah belong to our da jia!!!
    I think Google definatly wins a 50cent prize for this