In Hong Kong, people are buying newspapers to look at the ads

At a time of protest live-streams and breaking news notifications, there has been an unlikely revival of the old-school print newspaper in Hong Kong. Flip through the pages of Apple Daily these days and you’ll find it studded with quirky advertisements both large and small, some covering entire pages and others barely the size of a matchbox, tucked away in the classifieds section.

But a common thread running through the ads is their vocal support for the newspaper, and more broadly Hong Kong at large. In a sense, buying ads in Apple Daily is Hong Kongers’ latest form of protest.

The fiercely independent Apple Daily, known for pulling no punches in its criticisms of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, has so far borne the brunt of authorities’ crackdown on dissent. Its publisher, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in July under the new national security law for allegedly colluding with foreign forces, a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment. On the same day, some 200 police officers raided the paper’s newsroom, rifling through journalists’ desks and confiscating box-loads of materials. Angered by such a brazen attack on the media, Hong Kongers snapped up shares of Lai’s media company, driving up the stock price. The next day, people lined up in droves to buy copies of the newspaper.

In the weeks since, businesses and individuals alike have turned to an even more direct and substantial way of supporting Apple Daily: buying advertising space in its pages. Groups that have placed ads range from a fruit store and adult toy shop to bitcoin brokerages. Local pet-lover groups have also been prominent ad-buyers in Apple Daily, while some pet owners post photos of their shiba inus, huskies, and poodles posing with the newspaper. Apple Daily has quickly become the new Lennon Wall, which popped up all over the city last year and were plastered with Post-it notes filled with protest messages. The walls are now basically banned as space for public dissent rapidly shrinks.

Though Apple Daily declined to share financial details of its latest surge in ad sales, the increased revenue is “meaningful and needed,” said Mark Simon, an executive at Next Digital, which publishes the paper. Simon is also wanted by police, but is not in Hong Kong. The company reported a loss of $53 million last fiscal year amid the pandemic’s economic impact and a years-long boycott by advertisers wary of the paper’s politics. “The ads help a free press where it is most vulnerable in Hong Kong, financial pressure. As important as they are for us financially, the ads are an outlet for the people of Hong Kong to have their say unfiltered and on a mass scale,” said Simon.

Using newspaper and classified ads as a form of protest, particularly under oppressive regimes where public discourse is increasingly policed, is not a new phenomenon. As the media historian Karl Christian Führer has written (paywall), classified ads placed by Jews in Nazi Germany pushed back against official propaganda, served as an expression of Jewish self-assurance and pride, and formed “a social network avant la lettre since they offer an opportunity for individuals to address an anonymous mass in private matters.” Under a totalitarian regime, he added, “classified advertisements as messages from ordinary people can be even more subversive — despite a mundane character.”

Classified ads in Apple Daily are taking on subversive tones, too. A decades-old local bakery, called the Wah Yee Tang Cake Shop, has bought numerous spots in the paper’s classifieds section. Known for its irreverent protest-themed pastry items, the bakery’s ads adopt a similarly cheeky tone. One read, “Conscience is just like underwear, you can’t see it but it’s very important.” Another played on a Cantonese homonym between the words for “purpose” and “middle finger,” in a nod to the bakery’s mascot of an angry cat flipping the bird.

“We simply wanted to support Apple Daily,” said Naomi Suen, the bakery’s owner. “Now you can’t donate to certain organizations” — referring to a protest-related fund that had its bank account shut, and fears that authorities will order other similar funds frozen — ”and Apple Daily needs help urgently, so we thought why not help them?”

Another local business, an underwear store called My Secret, has also made ad purchases as a way to support the democracy movement. It recently placed a quarter-page color advertisement that read “Liberate your physique, underwear of our time,” a play on a now-banned protest slogan.

“We’ve seen the police and the government attack Jimmy Lai and his paper, and we want to support them so Hong Kongers can have freedom again,” said Eva Chung, the shop’s owner. “We don’t want the truth to disappear.”

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