What’s with all of the Shen Yun ads?

Photograph of women in traditional Chinese attire performing a dance
Image from lyndenj licensed under CC0 Creative Commons license.

If you live anywhere near a large city, you’ve probably seen the billboards, posters, flyers, etc. showing a woman graciously dancing, inviting you to a traditional Chinese dance performance called Shen Yun.

When I first saw these ads, I thought, “Oh how nice, I love cultural events promoting international art forms.” What set-off my skepticism, however, was the volume of their advertising. I sold billboard and radio advertising in the very early years of my career and have bought a lot of mass media as a marketing director. Using that knowledge, I did some rough math for the Houston area: the potential income from these performances in ticket sales (not factoring for any freebies given out and assuming each show is sold out) minus advertising expenses (that I knew of, which is limited since I don’t have TV and don’t travel the whole city), event rental hall prices, and costs of travel and such for the dance troupe.

I couldn’t make the math work where they would turn a profit.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who noticed their seemingly unlimited promotional budget and got curious; The Guardian has a great investigative piece about Shen Yun that is worth reading as does the Los Angeles Times. Both articles claim the goal of the performances is not to turn a profit from selling tickets, but to promote the agenda of a particular religious group, Falun Gong (Falun Dafa), and gain sympathy of their persecution by the Chinese government.

Which “side” is right? I don’t claim to have an opinion on this. But it’s important to highlight examples like their advertising and events where the goal of the advertising and/or event is different than we would originally assume.

Thanks, John Kerfoot, for showing us how to laugh at ourselves

This post is dedicated to someone I’ve never met, but want to thank.

For those of you “non-Michiganders,” you might not be familiar with John Kerfoot, but he’s very popular in Michigan. He owns Tri-Foot productions and is an instructor at Wayne State University, but we all know him because he’s the guy that publishes the Not So Pure Michigan videos.

The Back Story

A couple years back, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation decided they needed to do something to increase tourism. So, they produced an advertising/branding campaign titled Pure Michigan. The campaign, including television ads, are very well received and seem to do a lot of good for tourism for the State of Michigan. But, to those of us in Michigan, the ads are a stretch because we see the good AND the bad.

Enter John Kerfoot

The videographer very quickly began creating spoofs of the ads (which, most advertisers will tell you, is the ultimate compliment) and they went viral. Not only that, but his videos (which, a warning, contain a lot of swearing) are primarily responsible, in my opinion, for inspiring a whole new, sarcastic meaning to the phrase “Pure Michigan.” Examples:

  • If you see something that is completely unattractive, like a garbage dump, it’s not uncommon in Michigan for someone to point to it and say “See that? Pure Michigan.”
  • During a presentation on Broken Windows that I gave at a military base, I asked a high-ranking  officer what he thought of a picture I’d taken of a horrible billboard ad in Michigan. He smiled and sarcastically said, “Pure Michigan.”

Recently, via Facebook, he announced that he’s retiring the series. Even though I now live in Texas, I’m deeply saddened by the news. I still love watching his videos and happily share them with my friends in Texas who want to see the “other” side of Michigan. He’s taught us “Michiganders” to laugh at ourselves and he’s provided a great example of advertising spoofing done well.

So, John, I just want to say, thanks for the laughs. I’m going to miss your Pure Michigan series, but look forward to your future work.

And now, my favorite Pure Michigan videos (again, a warning, they do contain profanity and could potentially be offensive to some):