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Why superlatives and “extreme” language should be avoided when advertising in China

In China, the best marketing or advertising content will definitely not contain the words “the best” in it. 

That’s because, since 2015, the People’s Republic of China amended its Advertising Law to prohibit the use of superlatives and other more extreme or potentially misleading language in marketing/advertising content.

This article provides a short guide to what you need to know about China’s Advertising Law and banned words and phrases in advertising/marketing content. 

Simply the best (in the West)

In the West, advertising is full of superlative-rich hyperbole: BMW’s “The ultimate driving machine” or Disneyland’s “The happiest place on earth” are taglines which are known around the world, for example. 

In fact, you could say that superlatives and exaggeration are the essence of language of marketing and advertising. Check some of the sales emails from brands that have arrived in your inbox today if you’re in any doubt.

In China, however, using such language in marketing materials is not only ill-advised; it’s also illegal and could result in a ban or a fine (or both). 

What kind of words or phrases are banned in advertising content in China?

To avoid any potential pitfalls when creating or localizing Chinese advertising or marketing content, it’s advisable to steer clear of extreme language, highly definitive statements or exaggerated (and unverifiable) claims.

There are a wide range of types of words or phrases that are banned in Chinese advertising. We’ve listed a short summary below.

  • Superlatives: Phrases which include superlatives should be avoided, for example “the best”, “the cheapest”, “the most advanced”, “the quickest”.
  • Phrases using “number one”, “first” or “top”: It’s important not to claim to be “the number one” or “the first” in marketing content. For example, avoid phrases like “the number one brand”, “the top service”, “the number one selling product”, “the first choice”, “a global first” or “the first in China”.
  • Extreme or exclusive descriptions: Avoid extreme descriptions of brands or products such as “leading brand”, “unique features”, “luxury materials” or “world-class solutions”.
  • False or unprovable claims: Steer clear of exaggerated language that makes false or unprovable claims. For example, phrases like “completely natural”, “produces special effects”, “unprecedented benefits” and “lasts forever” all fall into this category. 
  • Words connected with superstition or luck: Avoid phrases such as “increase your luck”, “your lucky product”, “boosts your health”.
  • Phrases related to authority: Claiming to have endorsement by or connection with authority is a no-go, such as in phrases like “recommended by experts”, “recommended by national leaders” and “exclusively for…”.
  • Words or phrases with vague time references: Making general time-related statements in marketing content is prohibited, such as “today only”, “final countdown”, “anniversary offer” or “sale finishes soon”. Instead specific dates and times should be given.

Are there any other linguistic rules and regulations to be aware of?

Yes. In addition to the general rules on “extreme” or misleading language listed above, advertising for certain industry sectors is highly regulated in China.

For example, no advertising is allowed for industries including tobacco, gambling and particular kinds of pharmaceutical drugs.  

Other industry areas have specific restrictions, some of which are outlined below.

Health and food supplements

This is a massive sector in China which has become more tightly regulated in terms of advertising in recent years. With the aim of protecting consumers against false or misleading claims, all marketing content for such products must contain the phrase “this product cannot replace a drug”.

In addition, marketing content for health and food supplements is not allowed to:

  • Make claims that the product should be used to treat or prevent specific diseases
  • Make guarantees or assertions about its efficacy or safety
  • Make comparisons with other medicines
  • Make claims that the product is required or essential to protect a consumer’s health or wellbeing

Education

The extremely high value Chinese society places on educational achievement means there is a huge and growing market for educational services in the country. However, there are also strict rules within the Advertising Law that are aimed at preventing misleading claims. 

As a result, marketing content for educational services is not allowed to:

  • Guarantee success in a degree or school entrance process
  • Use endorsements from scientific research or academic institutions
  • Make false or unprovable claims such as “nationally recognised”, “XX% pass rate”, “remember forever”.

Financial

Similar to other highly regulated industries in China, advertising content must not make false or misleading statements. These include words or phrases such as “no risk”, “steady income”, “guarantee of 100% principal and interest” or “the safest choice”. 

Property

When advertising property or real estate services, as in other sectors it’s important to avoid claims that are exaggerated, can’t be proved or are misleading. 

So for example, avoid phrases such as “stable income”, “XX minutes away from the airport”, “guaranteed appreciation” and “secure investment”.

Cosmetics

In China, the Advertising Law prohibits claims that are seen to exaggerate or mislead about cosmetic products’ efficacy. These includes words and phrases such as “strong effect”, “high efficiency”, “renews skin” or “removes wrinkles”.

What happens if brands use banned words in advertising?

Using banned words or phrases or making misleading claims when advertising in China can lead to a ban and/or a fine.

For example, in 2017 the nutritional supplement brand Blackmores was fined $65,000 because its Chinese advertising (on its WeChat account and in-store materials) claimed that it was Australia’s top nutritional supplement brand and also that its vitamins can form part of treatment for arthritis and cardiovascular diseases. 

How do brands localize banned words or phrases in Chinese marketing content?

Localizing source content that contains words or phrases that are banned by China’s Advertising Law depends on the type of word used and its context.

So, for example, if there are any superlatives or “extreme” language in the source, it might be possible to tone these down, paraphrase in a different way, or use an alternative.

The following three examples demonstrate how this could be done.

  • Example 1

English source: the cheapest price

Simplified Chinese target: 更低廉的价格/更实惠

Back translation: the cheaper price/ more cost-effective

  • Example 2

English source: the number-one solution

Simplified Chinese target: 更优质的解决方案

Back translation: the more advanced solution

  • Example 3

English source: the favourite destination

Simplified Chinese target: 热门地点

Back translation: the popular destination

Note: the above localized versions are just for reference. The target could be varied depending on the context.

For words or phrases with no appropriate alternatives, it may be better to omit them instead. 

A good translator will always alert or remind the client where it has been necessary to adapt source content and share the thinking behind the chosen localization strategies, especially if the client is not very familiar with the process.

Localizing advertising/marketing content for any market is always a specialist task that should be undertaken by experienced localization professionals who understand the linguistic and cultural context. In China, the complexities of its Advertising Law make this particularly important.  

Important note: the above content is not intended to be used as legal advice.

Find out more

If you’d like to find out more about localizing in China, check our guide to the difference between simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese and also our guide to Chinese languages including Mandarin and Cantonese

We’d love to hear from you if you have any questions about localization in China or other global markets – get in touch at lifestyle@thisisalpha.com.