Selling ‘Gangnam Style’: Why K-Pop and Commercials Are a Perfect Match

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Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images

K-pop star Psy performs at the MTV VMA Concert Event in Hollywood on Sept. 5, 2012

There are a lot of winning things about South Korean rapper Psy’s horse dance. It’s pretty easy, for one. It’s equally entertaining when replicated by a person wearing a giant duck costume or a teenager in his suburban garage. But can it sell a fridge? Samsung thinks so. On Friday, South Korea’s electronics giant announced that Psy, who made the horse dance a global phenomenon in his video “Gangnam Style,” would be one of the new faces for its Zipel line of refrigerators.

There is a delicious irony in the deal — and one that Psy must embrace wholeheartedly. The rapper’s over-the-top lyrics and antics in his hit video flay the hyperconsumer culture of Seoul’s tony Gangnam neighborhood and South Korea in general. But it’s an agile piece of satire. Psy is managed by YG Entertainment, one of South Korea’s top three entertainment companies and one of the key agents that perpetuates the same high-gloss pop culture he mocks. Psy’s making fun of himself and the world he inhabits, but he’s celebrating it at the same time by delivering a product that encapsulates K-pop’s key hallmarks — an insanely catchy song and a video that is pure eye candy. Horse dancing around fancy kitchen appliances (whether Samsung decides to go that route or not) is such a natural extension of the video that it could easily be a scene left on the cutting room floor.

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It’s also right in step with what Psy’s K-pop megastar colleagues have been doing for years. A major revenue source of entertainment companies like YG, SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment is the money that their stars earn from advertising products across Asia. K-pop luminaries have lent their star power to everything from water-filtration systems to lipstick, and it works. When members of Kara, one of the major K-pop girl bands that’s big in Japan, started appearing in ads for a health drink, the company’s sales in Japan jumped 15-fold, according to Seo Min-soo, a researcher with the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI).

Obviously, artists getting trotted out to sell stuff is nothing new. What’s interesting is how South Korean companies are generating this revenue stream on the back of a process that is essentially free: flooding YouTube with content. Forced to look outside their own relatively small market to grow, K-pop agencies made the savvy move to aggressively post their artists’ videos on YouTube early on. In 2010, videos from YG, SM and JYP garnered 2.3 billion hits in 235 countries, and in the first half of 2011, they got 1.7 billion. “Gee,” a 2009 single from Girls’ Generation, has just about kept pace with Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” released the same year. Save the fact they both feature women singing, the videos are almost incomparable, but they’re neck-and-neck in hits, shedding some interesting light onto how there is no formula for what’s going to succeed in the Wild West of global social-media platforms. “Gangnam Style” is no exception. Five years ago, nobody — least of all South Korean entertainment agencies — would have predicted that a satirical video from a Korean hip-hop artist would have grabbed the world’s attention and spawned countless memes.

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The viewers making these groups a success are a tantalizing demographic for any brand. Last month, in a rather grandiose move, SM Entertainment declared itself a “virtual nation” before a concert audience of 40,000 SM fans in Seoul. They released the following statement: “The world fights through difficult times through music … Although we speak different tongues, we come together through SM’s music.” The less warm and fuzzy side of being a “virtual nation” is that growing overseas audiences helped push SM’s sales up an average of 37.5% between 2007 and ’10. “We have to approach these fans as a new market,” says Seo of SERI. “They’re the trendsetters. In the future, they will have the purchasing power.”

Does the fact that a huge global brand like Samsung has jumped on the bandwagon take South Korean artists’ commercial power to a new level? It’s hard to say how far the hype around Psy will take him or his colleagues. The 35-year-old has just signed with Island Records, the label that carries artists like Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey. But “Gangnam Style,” while very much a product of the K-pop machine, is not a typical K-pop product. Its barbed humor is totally absent in the likes of other big acts like Big Bang and 2NE1. But the way that K-pop agencies have used social media to convert culture into cash is certainly not something that is going to fade down the trend list into oblivion. And you can bet others are paying attention.

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