Point of view: The gender-neutral Korean

There may be something in the kimchi. If you contributed one of the 2.5 billion views of Psy’s Gangnam Style, you would be forgiven for believing that South Korea is an open land where gay frivolity rules. But in reality, it is a macho society where men and women have clearly defined roles. So why is Korean TV so obsessed with men in the kitchen, and how are South Korea’s national power brands reacting?

Although there are large and obvious differences among the North Asian societies, there is a great unifier. Confucianism. The rules laid down by the Chinese philosopher decreed that national stability depended upon the authority of men over women as the fundamental building block of society. And unlike China, with its Civil War and ensuing Cultural Revolution, Korean society has not yet undergone any great upheaval. And this is why today, there is such a stark paradox in Korean daily life: fastest broadband, Gangnam-style humour, world’s leading tech brands sitting aside the expectation that women should be demure, beautiful and cooking for their men.

Driven by increased income, education and exposure to ‘the West’, ancient gender rules are being challenged. For the first time, one in every ten nurses is male. And while Korean Air’s commercials are basically advertising their strutting stewardesses, male flight attendants are now being hired too, for the first time ever. And now, driven by the global obsession with cooking shows, the tradition of women preparing the food has also been disrupted as a source of entertainment, and it is has become more entertaining to watch men cook food than women.

Korean mega-brands have quickly and emphatically responded to the new feminine man of the home. Both Samsung and LG have not only switched their advertising away from the clichéd female ‘homemaker’ platforms to using male chefs as their new heroes, but they have even created new ‘chef’ product series built solely upon the popularity of ‘men in the kitchen’.

But there is a greater ripple in evidence beyond the novelty of gender role switching – a more subtle and nuanced one: a new wave of ‘gender-neutral’ brands and communications.

Popular women’s underwear brand Vivien is advertised via a short web drama series under the theme ‘Comfortably, Beautifully’. Despite the fact that the products are for women, the main hero is a man and through the series we see how he falls in love with his housemate (a woman), each sharing their unique perspectives on their relationship to the camera. Print advertising for bras is juxtaposed with an image of the female star of the series hugging the male hero from behind as he rides the bicycle, to highlight the product’s softness. Comfortably, Beautifully.

This gender-neutral trend is starker in cosmetics. Previously, the extent of the men’s cosmetic market was limited to cleansing and moisturising. But this trend in South Korea has given rise to a cosmetic brand, The Saem, which offers a BB cream, for men.

Believe it or not, this trend has gone as far as the ultimate feminine product – sanitary napkins. Two brands, Secret Day and Good Feel, both feature celebrity men sharing their feelings about their precious days and memories and how some women use perfume to mask any odour on ‘those days’ (their menstruation days).

Where convention would dictate that brand credibility and relevance would require a woman’s story to form the basis of the ad, gender neutrality has now opened up new doors to the female consumer, by using their favourite male celebrities and a man’s perspective on a woman’s menstruation. If it happened in the West, would this be considered modern or sexist?

Like much of Asia, South Korea is fascinating not only for the fact that it is the world’s most digital nation, but also for how digital has helped disrupt ancient gender rules. The resulting openness is yielding surprisingly bold experimentation by brands that we rarely see in the West – but perhaps we should.


This article was written by Ed Bell, chief executive officer FCB Greater China and originally appeared in WARC.