If you step back from the buzz of the day to day, there is a palpable sense of things 'tightening up' across China. The raging trade in property – the national obsession that has created more wealth in China than any other endeavour – is now bound by regulation. The much-publicised 'war on corruption' is an attempt to close up the back channels that have defined how China used to work.
And, more recently, we've seen that the welcome mat, once rolled out to multinational corporations in China, has been all but rolled up. The uneven application of anti-trust law is another hoop through which brands must jump. But until recently, amid the tightening of laws and adding of hoops, on the TV screens we were able to watch a TV ad that earnestly told women that with the ready application of a cream, their breasts would grow bigger.
This has, in the spectacular fashion of China, now changed. In one fell swoop, a whole raft of unchecked advertising practices will, by 1 September, be outlawed. The country with 300 million smokers has banned cigarette advertising. Advertising in and around schools is out and functional claims now need to reach a higher standard of proof. That probably spells the end of the breast enlargement cream business.
But one of the most interesting aspects of the planned changes is the big fat whales that the regulations are really targeting. Take the $18bn infant formula market. Projected to go to $30bn by 2017, this category has exploded, driven by a belief that the 'scientifically fortified infant milk powder' is superior to mother's milk. Such a perception, and perhaps also some more cosmetic concerns, has driven breastfeeding down to globally low levels.
In response, China will ban ads for dairy products, drinks and any other foods that 'claim to partly or completely substitute for mother's milk', a claim that had been made and inferred in the category with ever-increasing sophistication. There are rumours that any form of advertising of the category may be outlawed, as is now the case with tobacco in most western markets.
But there may be a more nationalistic motivation. The myriad of scandals destroyed trust and hit the local infant formula brands hardest. Since then, the market has been dominated by international brands and prices have skyrocketed. The situation, as it is, is an embarrassment to the government's ability to bring a better quality of life for the people. An effective ban on infant milk formula advertising knocks the leaders back and evens the playing field.
And it has worked. Major industry player Wyeth has been scrambling since the ban was mooted. In response, it has shifted its target audience strategy from babies to mums. And to reach that audience, it has created a Mum's club on WeChat. A search for infant milk formula accounts in WeChat confirms that the industry has fled to social media, away from the new restrictions.
Another big target for tightening up is China's culture of celebrity. Arguably, the love affair with celebrity owes its origins to the propaganda era and the notion of 'model workers' and the use of identity power to instruct behaviour among the masses. The early forms of advertising actually looked a lot like propaganda statements with products in them. Celebrities are now a huge business and a huge part of Chinese pop culture life. But celebrities are problematic. Jackie Chan's son Jaycee and his friend Kai Ko were recently busted for minor drug offences, which must have been very embarrassing to the government, given how prominently it has been linked with Jackie Chan himself.
The new laws will cut off much of the current celebrity business. Celebrities will be held responsible for the claims and endorsements they make. And people under the age of 10 cannot be used to make any endorsement of any kind, which will require new thinking from the food industry on how to legally communicate their products' benefits intended for younger consumers.
Much of the tightening up of the advertising laws was overdue and needed. But the feeling you're left with is that this is not only an attempt to change advertising, it is also an attempt to change society.