eBay and Wordplay

eBay currently has an ad playing on the flatscreen displays of the Shanghai subway system. It shows a series of short Chinese phrases, each followed by a brief illustrative video clip. The phrases are:

拍球 (dribbling a basketball)
拍瓜 (smashing a cucumber — a typical way to make some cucumber dishes)
拍脸 (daubing shaving cream onto a man’s face)
拍粉 (powdering a girl’s face)
拍被子 (beating the dust out of a quilt)

These images are followed by the phrase “不管你怎么拍… eBay” (“no matter how you … eBay”). I think that’s most of the commercial. I might have missed a little of it, though.

I’m pretty sure the word 拍卖 is never uttered in the commercial. 拍卖 is the obvious 拍 reference — 拍卖 means “auction.” eBay is referring to its various ways to auction items, I suppose.

I find the choice of 拍 objects pretty interesting because none of them are the most common examples. The really common ones would be 拍照 (take a photo) and 拍手 (clap). Of the usages chosen for the commercial, I think I’ve only ever encountered the first: 拍球 (not to be confused with 排球). I think I usually hear used most commonly for the last one.

I also thought it was cool that I could gain a better understanding of the scope of the verb 拍 just by watching a commercial. For me, that sort of understanding is usually gained by discussion with a teacher or tutor.

Why is eBay China advertising on Shanghai’s subways? Well, because it’s engaged in full-on war with Alibaba‘s online auction service Taobao, of course. More info:

Standing up to a Giant (Forbes)
Alibaba, EBay Square off (China Daily)
Jack Ma: Chairman and CEO, Alibaba.com (Asia Inc)
EBay’s Bid To Regain Its Glow (E-Commerce Times)

(Sorry, not trying to be Danwei.org–don’t expect much more of this kind of “news reporting” stuff in the future.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Ohhh, so that’s what’s up with all these ÅÄ advertisements. In Beijing, the subways are covered in 1pai.com.cn (yahoo auctions) ads. I didn’t take enough interest in the ads to figure out what they were trying to sell… mystery cleared up…

  2. Cool – something worthwhile out of advertising’s ever-encroaching invasion into every aspect of our lives.

    What is apparently April’s ad makes you guess what the images have in common – there are no words, so you have to just guess that a certain scene shows “ÅÄÂíƨ”.

    Can’t find your ad, though.

  3. wulong,

    Yeah, Yahoo is clearly lusting for some auction action in China, but I don’t think Yahoo is regarded as a serious threat to the current two top contenders.

  4. zhwj,

    Whoa, great link! That must be the ad Micah told me about.

    Hmmm… I’m not sure which I like better — being spoon-fed the characters or having to guess what’s represented.

    What’s the deal with the guy breaking the brick on his head??

  5. Looks to me like the April ad has a common theme of flat slapping. Even the brick makes a flat slap on the guy’s head. Ne?

  6. Tim P,

    The basic meaning of ÅÄ is “pat.” Notice that it’s usually someone’s hand (or an extension of the hand) doing the patting.

    ÅÄש?? Seems weird. Is it a martial arts thing?

  7. John: ÅÄש, in net-speak, refers to the practice of “flaming”. So Ebay is all hip to the latest lingo…

  8. Reminds me of my favorite Chinese slogan, Intel’s Centrino ad(I think this right):


    With wireless you have no limits
    taking advantage of the fact that ÎÞÏß (wireless) and ÎÞÏÞ (unlimited) are homophones.

    Now if only ±Ê¼Ç±¾ hadn’t been use for regular notebooks so it could be the term for Tablet PCs.

  9. It’s kind of interesting that the guy who kicked eBay out of Japan and put Yahoo! Auctions in the dominant position is now working for Taobao. Wonder why he didn’t stick with Yahoo…

  10. I just saw the ad again today and noticed that when the screen says ²»¹ÜÄãÔõôÅÄ there’s also a guy in the background breaking a brick over his head.

  11. As a former Alibaba employee, I hope Taobao fails dramatically and drags its parent company down with it. Come on ebay!

  12. Carl: Serious? Ya gotta provide stories… got a blog?

    I don’t know why, but for some reason I’m maybe a little bit too this particular battle (ebay vs taobao).

  13. Ebay, Google – going international. Ebay is apparently the net’s most valuable commodity, ahead of Google, from what I have read. If it can capture the cities of China, then they are really going to blow up.

    When I was in Taiwan, I had dinner with my cousin at my uncle’s restuarant by Daan Park in Taipei City. One of my cousin’s girlfriend’s came in and she had bags of stuff. When I asked about it, she said she had to ship them because she had just sold them via auction. In fact, that was her job, instead of working at a store, she just sold stuff at auction. I failed to ask her what site she was using.

    John, keep it coming. I love those flatscreens in Shanghai and the LCD’s on the trains. It makes BART of the SF Bay Area (established in the 60’s) look like its from the 60’s.

  14. the chinese internet auction sites are at least five years away from making profits, but it will be interesting to see what happens. Given the fact that the abismal QQ messenger is still number one in China, i wouldn’t be surprised if taobao did pretty good just because it is native.

    My favorite ad in the Shanghai subway is the one where a guy is on stage but the words flash on the screen “wo bu shuo” “wo bu neng shuo” “Wo pa shuo!” And then the slogan flashes up that even men have proplems too. It’s an add for impotence medication

  15. scrappenthal Says: May 24, 2005 at 11:49 am

    John, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Yahoo! Auctions in the Chinese market. In Taiwan, they control about 80% of all the money flows, with more than 98% of the usership (of course, many of the Yahoo! Auctions users also double and use eBay, but eBay’s user rates are somewhere around 60%). They have done a great job building the online auctions market from scratch, and there is no reason to assume they wouldn’t be able to do the same thing in the mainland.

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