Vietnam relaxes its blitz on `poisonous' Western adverts

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

Coca-Cola may again become ``the real thing'' in Vietnam after its government yesterday made a rare admission that it may have acted injudiciously in its abrupt campaign against ``social evils'', a campaign that involved the tearing down and covering of signs and adverts which used a foreign language.

Two weeks ago the Hanoi government kicked off the social evils campaign, which was primarily targeted against drug abuse, gambling, prostitution, pornography and foreign innovations such as karaoke bars. Public burnings of illegal video tapes and pornographic materials were held and banner-waving processions organised to protest against social vices.

Then, with no warning, the police fanned out through the main streets of the capital ordering shops, restaurants and businesses to remove foreign words from their signs and to paint roughly over advertisements that were not wholly in Vietnamese.

Tran Hoan, the Culture and Information Minister, summoned the press yesterday for one of the increasingly rare encounters between officials and the news media to say: ``Yesterday we had a meeting. We criticised ourselves and we admitted that the information to the foreign community and foreign press is rather late.''

Mr Hoan said that the struggle against social evils, foreign ideas undermining socialism, and ``poisonous'' products was a long one, but added that advertising was not a cultural poison - implying that it should not have been targeted with such zeal.

There is little doubt that the advertising business has grown in Vietnam, where the end of diplomatic isolation and the influx of foreign consumer goods has grown from a trickle to a flood. Media billings, for example, are estimated to have doubled last year to some $63m (pounds 41m) and include some of the world's leading brand names: Pepsi, Kodak, Fuji and Carlsberg, as well as Coca- Cola.

Foreign residents in Hanoi say the atmosphere has become unusually tense in the run-up to the Communist Party congress, reflecting the uncertainty among the party leadership as to how reformist economic policies can be pursued without a parallel easing of rigid political controls.

The authorities in Hanoi have been more zealous in implementing Decree 87, banning the so-called social evils. Mr Hoan said that his office had received an outpouring of complaints from dismayed foreign businessmen. However, in freewheeling Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon, the foreign language ban, like many directives from Hanoi, has been honoured in the breach.

Back in Hanoi, Nguyen Vinh Cat, the director of the city's culture and information department, made it clear that a compromise was possible as long as foreign names and words were displayed with less prominence than the Vietnamese language. ``We don't want to limit advertising,'' he said. ``We just want to make it more orderly and attractive.''

The government is torn between its desire for foreign investment - needed to pull the country out of decades of poverty - and its need to placate the Communist and military officials who fear rising foreign influence. Mr Hoan's conciliatory version of the new line was to emphasise that government policy ``aims to preserve our national culture and at the same time learn from the cultural beauties of the world's people''.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Hoan believes that Coca-Cola teaches the whole world to sing ``in perfect harmony" as its image-makers would have their international audience believe.