An Apple A Day Keeps Developers Away

(SCMP) by Jane Moir

Leading property developers have pulled advertising from Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's Apple Daily, in what the mass-circulation newspaper believes is a boycott related to its pro-democracy stance and criticism of the Hong Kong and mainland authorities.

Cheung Kong (Holdings), New World Development (NWD), Nan Fung Development, Shun Tak Holdings and Sun Hung Kai Properties are understood to have withdrawn advertising from the publication over the past six months.

This has been reflected in figures released recently by research house admanGo, which show Apple to be losing out dramatically to its competitors in the property advertising category, earning just $7.77 million over the past three months, a fraction of overall spending of $178.18 million.

Hong Kong's second-most read newspaper cites an "ongoing boycott by property developers", which has gathered steam since the July 1 pro-democracy demonstration. The publication believes that by wading into the political debate, it has been punished by the property heavyweights.

"While we never really look to pick a fight, it would be na´ve to think that this is purely a market function," Apple general manager Mark Simon said. "[The developers] are not interested in receiving proposals from us."

A number of the developers contacted by the South China Morning Post cited commercial reasons for withdrawing their advertising from Apple.  

A spokesman for NWD said the placing of advertisements was "purely a commercial consideration" and denied any political subtext to its decision to shun the newspaper. Cheung Kong cited its media placement strategy.  "As for which particular medium we have or have not placed advertisements in, it all depends on the needs of the advertising campaign and the effectiveness of the media," a spokeswoman said.

SHKP said its advertising strategy was based on marketing needs. It denied that it had pulled advertisements, saying it still used Apple as a media outlet.  Nan Fung and Shun Tak did not return calls yesterday.

Analysts following Hong Kong-listed Next Media have, however, noted the absence of major developers among Apple's pages, given that just six months ago the property category was the leading advertising spender at the paper.

Mr Simon stressed that despite the boycott, Apple had over the past seven months outperformed last year's advertising, citing a rise in advertising for slimming and financial products.  One analyst said: "After all, this is still a very dominant paper and they have been very innovative in terms of how they advertise. I buy the paper - this is one way to vote."

Legislator and former journalist Emily Lau Wai-hing voiced concern yesterday. "I think it's very regrettable that we have such a scenario in which the business sector, especially the property developers - the most powerful lot - choose to exercise their financial muscle to stifle the freedom of the press."

This would not be the first time Mr Lai's publications had been ostracised. In June 2001, companies in the HSBC Group initiated an advertising ban on all Apple Group publications following a Next Magazine article alleging Hang Seng Bank chief executive Vincent Cheng Hoi-chuen used company equipment for personal use.

In July 2000, the Asian Wall Street Journal ran a report that claimed an aide to chief executive Tung Chee-hwa had telephoned a property developer, asking him to "avoid" Apple.

Another developer said he had a similar call from the aide, Andrew Lo Cheung-on. Mr Tung's office denied the claims.

I would be a fool to tell you what really went on.  I don't know, okay?  But by happenstance yesterday morning, two people in my household brought in copies of Apple Daily and Ming Pao before I even saw this SCMP article.  So I actually had the opportunity to compare both newspapers side by side.

Ming Pao was significantly thicker, and that was because they had lots of real estate advertisements.  However, there were two considerations.  First, it was true that Ming Pao had those full-page advertisements from the big property developers.  However, it was more than that, since Ming Pao had invested much more in editorial content related to the real estate market.  If I were in the market to buy or sell an apartment, I would have gone to Ming Pao.  Conversely, a property developer would have preferred to be found in an editorial environment that is strong on real estate and therefore has more readers who are interested in the real estate.  I don't have the information, but I am sure that that this reader profile should be reflected in the Nielsen Media Research Media Index study in Hong Kong.

Secondly, I observed that there are obvious differences in general editorial content and tone between the two newspapers.  The first difference was that the horse-racing section in Apple Daily always contains two full-pages of advertisements and advertorials for the erotic entertainment industry (e.g. pictures of the new girls at a Portland Street massage parlor).  There is no such section in Ming Pao.  When I wondered aloud, it was pointed out to me that Ming Pao is read by respectable people, which means that Apple Daily is read by not very respectable people.  We are talking about comparisons between the New York Times with the New York Post, or the London Times with The Sun and Paul Krugman with Steve Dunleavy.  To me, it seems clear that a rational property developer would go to Ming Pao over Apple Daily.

Of course, nothing that I said proves anything.  But I just don't see how government can dictate advertising allocations by individual advertisers one way or the other.

For the record, I will state that Apple Daily is my preferred newspaper because of the macabre stories.  If they didn't have it, someone would have to invent it.  But if I wanted to buy or sell an apartment, that's another story.


From Helen Hau-ling Cheng's article Consuming A Dream: Homes in Advertisements and Imagination in Contemporary Hong Kong:

In Hong Kong, when we read Chinese-language newspapers such as Ming Pao or Sing Tao Daily, the first thing we may notice is a half-page advertisement on the front page, selling a new property development.  This may be quite amazing to those who are new to Hong Kong: perhaps nowhere else in the world does the front page of the newspaper, which in most places is devoted to the most important news of the day, lend itself instead to property advertising.

When we look over these advertisements, we find something even more interesting: these advertisements, for the most part, do not even bother to show the property being sold.  Rather, their graphics tend to show only exterior space, such as a blue sea or a green mountain or perhaps a swimming pool.  It is often stated that Hong Kong people are practical and money-conscious in their values, and will not let their emotions take over; this would seem especially true given the fact that property buying is such a high-stakes activity, involving people's life savings.  Indeed, when we look at the advertisements, we find that one eye-catching feature is the price listed in bright colors.  But why is it that what is actually being sold is not portrayed?

...

In Hong Kong, whether in advertisements or reality, home transcends its physical existence and becomes a symbolic token for fame and fortune; when Hong Kong people buy property, they are consuming home both as a reality of small but expensive flats, but buying the dream of high-class spaciousness.  The sea view in the property advertisements is the articulation of high-class dreams, and the site for the pursuit of such dreams.

Yet, the making and sustenance of such a dream can only be understood when referring to the unique social meanings of property and property-buying in Hong Kong.  When we go back to the initial mystery of Hong Kong property advertisements in which the blue sea, the swimming pool and the green mountains are being presented, we can now understand that they are employed for their value in conspicuous consumption and hence their exchange value, because home here is also a symbol for social status and an asset for investment.  Both developers and home-buyers give substance to exterior space, and to homes as symbols of high-class life.  Homes in Hong Kong are not merely homes, but they are far more that that: they are the stuff, however illusory, of dreams. 

This article was published in 2001, and I will note that the two newspapers of reference are Ming Pao and Sing Tao Daily, not Apple Daily.