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UBC Theses and Dissertations

An analysis of cultural meanings obtained by Chinese young adults from Yao Ming’s depiction in commercial messages Bi, Chunhui


This thesis examines the cultural meanings Chinese young adults obtain from Yao Ming's image in advertising. Yao Ming, a 7-foot-6 inch tall basketball player from Shanghai, China was hired by the Houston Rockets in the first selection of the 2002 NBA draft. His emergence in the NBA has lead to a phenomenon called "Yao Ming Mania." A number of prestigious brands such as Apple, Visa, Pepsi, and Reebok have signed endorsement contracts with him, and Yao Ming has become widely known through endorsement advertisements as well as his media portrayals in NBA coverage. While there are studies on the cultural meanings of celebrities in western countries, a literature review indicates that such research on Chinese athletes is very limited (Dong, 2003). The research builds on work in audience studies by Wilson and Sparks (1996). They suggest that audiences within an "interpretive community" have similar "interpretive strategies" and different "interpretive communities" have different interpretations of media messages. The research also builds on McCracken's (1989) "meaning transfer" model of celebrity endorsements. He suggests that effective celebrity endorsements help transfer useful meanings from the celebrity to the goods they endorse, and that these meanings are delivered to the consumer through purchasing. Based on the conjunction of the audience research and the "meaning transfer" model, this research examined how the "interpretive community" of Chinese students who are living in Vancouver interpreted the meanings mobilized in the endorsements of Yao Ming. The research schedule had two phases. In the first, using interpretive analysis, 10 current Yao Ming endorsement ads were analyzed and five representative commercials were selected for use in phase two. Two of the ads were televised in China and the other three were televised in North America. This selection was in order to examine whether there were cultural difference when the viewers interpreted western and Asian commercials of Yao Ming's image. In the second phase, these commercials were viewed by five focus groups of four to six subjects who were university students from China aged 18 to 25, who had studied in Vancouver for 1-4 years. Focus group reactions to the commercials and to related interpretive questions were recorded using questionnaires and audio taping. The interpretive analysis provided a framework for understanding the meanings of the commercials, and the focus groups were intended to help identify the meanings the respondents gave to the commercials upon viewing them. Focus groups indicate that respondents' attitudes toward Yao Ming were positive and that they thought he delivered positive messages to the endorsed products. Focus group results suggest that three levels of cultural meanings (1. common meanings as a celebrity, 2. Yao's distinctiveness from most other celebrity athletes, 3. his symbolism o f Chinese and China) contribute to Yao Ming's marketing popularity and there are no cultural differences of his image portrayed in Chinese and western commercials. The focus group results show that the two levels of consumption o f the celebrity image (or the meaning consumption) of Chinese viewers (1. purchased or intended to purchase, 2. would not purchase) were fairly moderate, while all viewers were consistent in valuing the hiring Yao Ming as an endorser. The results also show that the depth of influence of Yao Ming varied between male and female viewers. Moreover, a set of special conditions may prevail as the result of living abroad and this may have made the Chinese students' feelings toward a Chinese celebrity stronger than for those who live in Mainland China.

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