K-Pop is all about selling.
Selling out? That's the way some fans Western fans look at it when suddenly their favorite anti-establishment indie band's song is blaring from a McDonald's commercial.
When you're a K-Pop star, though, selling is right at the top of the job description. Whether it's supplanting the latest Galaxy model into the hottest K-drama, negotiating contracts with an energy drink, or embedding ads within music videos, advertisers have certainly figured out how to use Korean pop culture to drive sales.
One popular example of a music video hawking a product is 2NE1's "Kiss" video for Cass beer. The video plays out like a steamy love story that would appear in a K-drama, with two troublemakers playing hard to get amidst a backdrop of pool parties, bikinis, young love, killer dance moves, and - of course - seemingly endless supplies of Cass beer.
Samsung has leveraged its use of K-Pop stars to spread brand awareness worldwide. The company commissioned four of K-Pop's finest, Junsu, BoA, Tablo, and Jin Bora to collaborate for a series of music videos and commercials promoting Samsung's Anycall product. The group released three songs and gave one live performance in Seoul.
Korea isn't the only country that solicits celebrity endorsements, of course. But for some reason, using the face of a star in many cases seems to work better in Korea than it does almost anywhere else. That's partially for cultural reasons, said Taewan Kim, professor of marketing at Lehigh University.
"Koreans historically were influenced by Confucian principles, which emphasize what others think who I am, not what I think who I am," he told KpopStarz. "Many young Koreans want to be like a K-Pop star to at least they think they want to follow their fashion or their hobby."
It also has to do with general viewing habits in Korea, said Dae Ryun Chang, professor of marketing at Yonsei School of Business.
"The use of celebrities in Korea appears to be quite effective whether it is a K-Pop or K-drama star," he told KpopStarz. "Koreans still tend to be communal in their viewing and listening habits. They're sensitive to what's popular and track popular search words and names and no doubt many of the celebrity choices are based on such metrics."
The phenomenon isn't limited to Korea, said Professor Chang. As people from countries like Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia have become K-Pop and K-Drama fans, they've also warmed up to buying products from South Korean giants like Samsung, LG, and cosmetics brand Amorepacific.
"The Hallyu Wave and K-Pop have had the strongest impact in Asian countries," Chang explained. "Therefore, in this region K-Pop stars have been used as pitchmen and women. The popularity of Winter Sonata helped BAE Yong June become an iconic celebrity in Japan, and Korea used him to attract tourists to Korea. LG Electronics has periodically used popular actresses like Kim Hee Sun to sell their products in China."
K-Pop stars are also making inroads in U.S. advertising campaigns. HyunA's official video for "My Color" doubled as an ad for Toyota's Corolla X both in Korea and the U.S. In addition to the commercial, Toyota released an app that teaches K-Pop fans (or, perhaps, U.S. fans who were introduced to HyunA for the first time for through Toyota's ad) the choreography and lyrics for her automotive hit.
Most recently, the New York Times ran a bizarre bulgogi ad featuring Texas Rangers outfielder Choo Shin Soo.
Those were interesting efforts, but it might be awhile before K-Pop stars have the same marketing power in the West that they do closer to home, said Chang.
"I think the Korean celebrity strategy can only work if the following conditions are met - one, the targeted country has to be interested in Korean cultural content. Second, the celebrity is relatively well-known, and third, he or she is the right person for the product. The New York Times ad drew mixed responses because most of those conditions were not satisfied. In contrast, if an electronics firm wanted to use 2NE1 to a hip and trendy smartphone in Southeast Asia, the chances for success would be much higher."
Until U.S.-based K-Pop fans can turn on their TVs and see Rain or 2NE1 selling them a tablet, they'll have to rely on videos like this one from Girls Generation and 2PM that encourages Koreans to head to the Caribbean Bay water park. It will definitely get U.S. K-Pop fans dancing and in the summer spirit, but only time will tell if it's enough to inspire them to open up their wallets and see Caribbean Bay in real life.