Beijing Journal

Who Needs TV? They Pedal Bikes to Peddle Ads

 

By Elizabeth Rosenthal,, 3 February 2000

 

BEIJING, Jan. 30 -- On a recent bitter-cold morning, the 15 teenagers suited up in neon-yellow warm-up jackets and matching baseball caps, climbed on 15 identical mountain bikes and rode off in formation onto the icy Beijing streets.

From a distance they resembled a bicycle club or an athletic team at practice as they wove deftly in and out of traffic for hours. But this was neither leisure nor sport. It was work.

The yellow jackets bore the name of the Ai Jia World Furniture Center in bold red characters. And the 15 young men -- all migrants from poor rural areas -- were employed as a sometimes walking and sometimes talking, but mostly cycling, advertisement. The company has about 100 people doing this kind of work.

"There are many furniture stores in Beijing now and we had to do something to distinguish ourselves," said Chen Cuili, the company's stylish young advertising director, wearing an overcoat indoors to protect against this winter's extraordinary cold. "It's been very effective. It's new and it's interesting. A lot of customers say they've noticed."

Ms. Chen said that the decision to use human advertising was not prompted by cost considerations. But the fact that it is feasible to use teams of humans as moving billboards says a lot about the strange inconsistencies in China's economy, where ordinary workers' wages have often not changed that much from Communist-era rates, but prices of goods and commodities -- including advertising -- are more in line with Western capitalism.

That is to say that in a country with 1.3 billion people and a lackluster economy, people are cheap. But billboards and television advertisements are fantastically expensive.

Ai Jia World Furniture pays each bike rider the equivalent of $80 a month, with no benefits, to work for seven hours a day, seven days a week. So a team of 15 costs $1,200 a month, plus the cost of the uniforms and bicycles.

In contrast, a one-time 15-second advertisement during prime time on the local television station, BTV-1, costs $2,800. And a large billboard in a prominent location rents at $3,000 to $8,000 a month.

Ai Jia started the bicycle ads six months ago, as part of a larger advertising blitz that has also included roadside banners and, at times, newspaper and television advertising as well.

The one-year-old company is one of many huge furniture stores that have sprung up recently to cater to China's new house-proud urban middle class who, for the first time, can own their own homes and have the money to decorate them. And the Chinese Ai Jia, which means "love home," must, of course, distinguish itself from the powerful new import, Yi Jia (pleasant home), known in the West as IKEA.

Although Ms. Chen acknowledged that the cost of television advertising was much higher than bike promotions, she said that the company's main concern was the campaign's effectiveness.

"It's hard to compare costs," she said. "There are so many people watching TV, but they may not notice you because there are so many ads."

Although a few other companies tried bicycle advertising last fall, none have continued it into this winter, the coldest in Beijing's recent history.

Any day it is not raining or snowing, the furniture store sends out four or five bicycle advertising teams, each with 15 to 20 men, on set routes. The men in the bright yellow jackets have become part of this gray urban landscape, snaking along the roadside like a giant neon caterpillar. At bus stops, team leaders sometimes order the team to alight and mingle with the passengers, silently cultivating Ai Jia brand recognition.

"Sometimes they'll get off at a station and help people get on buses, or at a crowded intersection where they might help the police with traffic or maintain order," said Ms. Chen. "But unless they are asked they don't tell people what their purpose is or why they are doing it."

To the riders, all poor teenagers from the countryside, the days on the road are, quite simply, work, and better than many jobs they might get here. They are hired from agencies that provide security guards to businesses.

"Yes, I'm satisfied with the work," said Guo Peng, a slight boy with the first hint of a moustache, who said he was 18 and had just graduated from middle school in rural Shanxi Province. "It's money."

Since they do not have urban residence permits, such young men are excluded from most better-paying jobs in Beijing and live at the fringes of the local economy. Their $80 monthly salary is about average for migrant workers in Beijing, and the work is easier than construction jobs.

Still, they look cold and somewhat forlorn as they ride down the wintry streets, yellow jackets over threadbare sweaters and bare hands chapped from the wind.

"We're young and we don't mind the weather," said Yan Jinming, 20, one easygoing team leader who had previously worked in restaurants.

He, for one, seemed to enjoy a job that lets rural migrants step out of the penumbra of where they normally exist and places them in the limelight.

"When we first started people would all come over saying, 'What's going on, what's this?' " he said. "They think of it as something strange and interesting."


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neil@mishalov.com

© 2000 by Neil Mishalov