VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Notes From Abroad | Tracking Global Retail

In Korea, Marketing to Women Begins with Men





In Seoul, it is virtually impossible to walk through the makeup mecca known as the Myeongdong district and not notice that there are life-size cardboard cut-outs of Korean men in front of nearly every store, each of them winking and smiling, and beckoning shoppers into any one of the hundreds of cosmetics stores that line the streets.


But who are they beckoning, men or women? Probably both. That’s because here in Korea, appearances matter – a lot.

{ “Advertisements construct and represent gender in accordance with traditional hierarchical gender relations in society.” }

In fact, men are the fastest growing consumer segment. It is estimated that men in their twenties use an average of 13 cosmetics products per month. The cosmetics industry for men alone has grown nearly 70% in just the past five years, rising to roughly $1billion in 2015 alone.



In Seoul’s Myeongdong district, dozens of shops place life-size cardboard cut-outs of celebrities, meant to encourage customers to take selfies.

It’s not uncommon to see young men wearing full makeup and shopping for more products with their girlfriends. Known as “flower boys,” they are revered for their beauty rather than mocked (and in a country that still does not openly accept homosexuality, it is never assumed that these men could also be gay.) More common, however, is ordinary working men who use maybe just pencil in their eyebrows, use BB creams, or tinted powders. On YouTube, there are dozens of Korean tutorials directed at men on how to apply makeup.

{ The cosmetics industry for men alone has grown by nearly 70%, with men in their twenties using an average of 13 cosmetics products per month. }

Celebrities are universally worshipped in Korea and Kpop production house like YG, SM, and JYP manufacture a steady stream of boys who are unified in their vanity and instrumental in commodifying beauty.


These companies are a kind of propaganda machine for Korea’s power with all things cool and beautiful, whether its electronics from Samsung or movie star Kim SooHyun. YG Entertainment even launched its own cosmetics brand called Moonshot, which showcases pop acts Big Bang and 2NE1 in their image campaigns. More men in makeup.


And now international brands want in. U.S. brand Clarisonic hired male actor Ahn Jae-hyun, while Mary Kay engaged Yoon Park to represent its skincare products.


But men also feature prominently in advertising for electronics, liquor, food, and just about any other category you can think of. Unlike the West where female models are the norm, it’s impossibly attractive men who rule Korea.


So how does one decode this male power of attraction, and why do they figure so prominently?


Some theories suggest that rigidly Confucian societies like Korea use advertising as yet another mouthpiece to reinforce the hedgemony that is endemic to the culture’s strict norms of male power and status over women.

In an academic journal, Professor Michael Prieler from the School of Communications at Hallym University in South Korea puts it this way:


Advertisements are sources of meaning in a culture because they tell the audience not only stories about products but also about social roles, goals, and values…. advertising images are constructed as part of larger social processes that construct and encourage some meanings of dominant groups over others. For example, advertisements construct and represent gender in accordance with traditional hierarchical gender relations in society. Thus, they recreate stereotypes and hamper change because once such practices become habitual, others expect such behaviors, which are perpetuated by society [citations omitted.][1]

But it may be far more complex than that.

DOMESTIC BLISS: Who better to sell kitchen appliances than.. a man. Apparently men can sell anything, even a rice cooker.

While the West overtly puts women in stereotypical sexualized roles, here it is men who perform the role of “feminine” beauty. The difference? They still maintain their masculine power.

{ Their power is not just in being men, but in being beautiful men in a society where they are already omnipotent. }

Of course, not all men in Korea look anything remotely like the men in advertisements, but the message is clear: their power is not just in being men, but in being beautiful men in a society where they are already omnipotent.


South Korea is a fiercely competitive culture when it comes to family status, academic achievement, an impressive job, and a marriage that increases the power of that family.


In Korea, beauty can be an important entrée to opportunity. The right looks can get you a job.


For instance, resumes must include a photograph which is always scrutinized. Beautiful people can get good jobs while less attractive people do not. Beautiful people get married. Unattractive people go to Gangnam to get plastic surgery so they can get married.


So it’s no wonder that Korea’s obsession with external beauty explains the nearly neurotic desire for any product that can promise a better status in life.


Enter the men who promise this — even if they’re just a cardboard cut-out on the sidewalk.


It’s a Sunday afternoon. Korean couples walk arm in arm through a neighborhood lined with Hanoks, the traditional houses made famous in dozens of soap operas. For many of these couples, it is the only time they have for romance and intimacy in a country famous for 60-hour work weeks.


Many dress extravagantly, a show of prosperity. One couple pauses to take a selfie in front of a charming little teahouse. They stare at the photo and then, the girl turns to the boy and adjusts his makeup with her fingers. They pose again.


This time, perfection.

[1] Gender representations in East Asian advertising: Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea. Michael Prieler. Communications & Society, Universidad  de Navarra,  Vol 28(1) 2015.


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