THE MIDDLING KINGDOM

IT’S HARD TO APPRECIATE JUST HOW GIGANTICALLY IMPORTANT CHINA IS TO THE GLOBAL CAR BUSINESS – THINK FAT KIDS AND McDONALD’S, OR TEENAGE GIRLS AND JUSTIN BIEBER – UNTIL YOU TRAVEL THERE, WHICH YOU REALLY SHOULDN’T BOTHER DOING.

Stephen Corby

I recently endured the tenderising embrace of flying on China Southern to Guangzhou, which you would call the ugliest city in the world if only the cloying smog would lift enough for you to see it properly. It also has double the population of Sydney in barely half the space.

On my fetid flight on the world’s sixth-worst airline (I checked, but only afterwards) I was stunned by the ads shown between 15-year-old episodes of The Simpsons, and not just by the quantity. Out of 32 back-to-back commercials at one stage, 31 were for cars (the other was for IBM). This is an airline that carries more than 100 million people a year, so its screens are prime, captured-audience territory, and the

The Chinese are using the kind of simplistic ads we had to put up with decades ago

companies spending biggest are automotive.

It’s also clear how nascent the market still is in China – either that or the people are all simpletons – because they’re using the kind of literal, simplistic ad messages we had to put up with decades ago.

A BMW commercial shows a man in a powerful suit staring purposefully out a window and riding around meaningfully in lifts while pointing at things intently. At stressful day’s end he looks down, sees his BMW on the street and smiles like he’s just been injected with morphine.

So, if you work hard and are successful, you’ll get a BMW. Simple.

My favourite was the Toyota Highlander ad, and I only wish I could have understood the voiceover, partly because I got to see it at least 90 times. Here’s the plot: “This is an SUV. It is rugged. If you drive one, giant eagles will land on the sunroof. Giant tigers will run alongside you.

And when you reach your seaside destination and climb out, a giant sperm whale will breach, Free Willy-style, over you and your car and you’ll smile orgasmically because this SUV has changed your life.”

My least favourite was a Camry Hybrid commercial that featured a cat sleeping on the back seat, with a dim-eyed owner shushing her husband as he starts the car for fear of waking it. They go for a drive with this unrestrained cat in the back, and it sleeps the whole way because… hybrids are quiet.

It might not be a sophisticated market, but it is huge. Just last year, a report by analysts McKinsey & Co estimated China would overtake the US as the number one market for luxury cars, with sales hitting three million a year by 2020.

This year, however, the wheels have come off the Chinese premium segment. Sales for BMW, Audi, Jaguar Land Rover and others all slumped in May, and remain stagnant. This comes after years of stupendous growth for the top marques, especially the big three Germans, much beloved by image-conscious Chinese millionaires and billionaires.

While predictions of huge growth may have been reined in by the European brands, there’s still plenty of room for optimism, hence all those advertisements. China’s car market is already the largest in the world, but there are only 70 cars on the road per 1000 head of population there, compared to 500 per 1000 in Europe and a staggering 700 in the US.

Better yet, it’s still okay, apparently, to treat them like ignorant rubes.

Fashion victims Fashion victims A REPORT by Bloomberg suggests that politics, and politicians, could be to blame for this year’s slamming on of the sales brakes in China.

“After a government crackdown on graft and conspicuous consumption, growth in luxury-car sales is slowing, and Chinese buyers are settling for less opulent models,” Bloomberg reported.

“That could spell an end to the gold rush for brands such as Porsche, BMW and Audi, which have relied on China for about 50 percent of their global profi ts.”

The China Automobile Dealers Association told the business agency that the era of Chinese consumers simply going for the most expensive models is over because “affl uent people are becoming more low-key”.