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Editorial: Behind SK-II’s China’s “Change Destiny” Campaign

Some call the recent ad campaign of skincare brand SK-II hypocritical. Is it?

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The ad campaign of skin care brand SK-II has been all over the news, both in and outside China, since it was launched on April 7 – triggering much discussion on the phenomenon of China’s ‘leftover women’ and the ad itself, with some calling it ‘hypocritical’. But is it?

Japanese skin care brand SK-II has caused quite a stir in China with its latest ad campaign that focuses on unmarried women over the age of 25 in China, who have been labeled ‘leftover women’ by Chinese media for years. The video, that is part of the brand’s worldwide ‘Change Destiny’ campaign, has been watched over 10 million times within ten days of its release.

 

“A wrinkled past in China”

 

It’s not the first time SK-II has caused commotion in China, where the brand has a somewhat of a wrinkled past. In 2005, the company was suspected of deceiving consumers with its anti-wrinkle products, according to Chinese state media. Even before this news, Chinese netizens were already calling for a boycott of the Japanese SK-II in 2004.

In 2006, SK-II producer Procter & Gamble (宝洁) stopped the import of all SK-II products in China after the use of banned substances was detected by Chinese inspectors, followed by much controversy and media attention. According to an 2006 Ad Age article, the manufacturer defended the chemicals in SK-II as the same traces were found in other comparable products by companies such as Lancome or Estee Lauder – yet they suffered no consequences in their China sales. This left some industry observers wondering whether or not the brand was purposely picked on by the Chinese government for its Japanese origin, linking it to anti-Japanese sentiment that has existed in China since World War II.

A decade later, SK-II has launched its major ‘Change Destiny’ (#改写命运#) brand campaign that features, according to the brand: “(..) strong and independent women who have chosen to pursue their dreams instead of being pressured into marrying for the sake of it” (SK-II website).

sk2missionSK-II ‘change destiny’ campaign. See the video here.

 

“I won’t be happy if I marry for the sake of marrying”

 

The company chose the successful Swedish ad company Fordman & Bodenfors to produce their campaign video. This ad agency also produced the video for H&M’s world recycle week featuring MIA, that received nearly a million views on Youtube within a week after its release.

The SK-II 4-minute-video titled ‘Marriage Market Takeover‘ features several unmarried Chinese women who talk about the pressure they experience from their family and society at large to get married, and the stigmatization they face for being single.

pressurewhatsonweibo

Different short scenes where unmarried Chinese women tell how they are stigmatized.
(1) “You are a leftover woman”, (2) “You become a subject people talk about”, (3) “And you get so much social pressure”.

 
After talking about their current situation, the women go to a so-called ‘marriage market’ – a well-known event in China that is generally held on Sundays in urban parks. This is a place where parents stand with ‘ads’ that tell the age, profession, income, and other details about their son or daughter, in the hopes of finding a suitable match for them.

wallofadsShot of the ‘marriage market’ in th Shanghai Park in the video.

Instead of coming to the market in search of a partner, they come there to see their own ‘ad’. The park in Shanghai where the ‘marriage market’ is normally held now has a wall of ads that are likely placed there for the SK-II campaign film. These ‘ads’ show the portraits of the different women, with an accompanying text saying things like: “I won’t be happy if I marry for the sake of marrying”.

the ads

(1) “I don’t want to get married just for the sake of marriage, I won’t live happily that way.” (2) “I will be happy, confident, and have good life.” (3) “I have a great career and there is another term called ‘power women’.

 
Their parents then arrive at the market and see their daughter’s picture and read her message to them. They are seemingly moved, and then express their understanding for their daughter’s situation.

parentsreactionwhatsonweibo

The parents respond to the ads by hugging their daughter. (1) “Being independent is a great lifestyle and it’s the life I want.” (2) Mum says: “I will always support you!” (3) Mum says: “The ‘leftover women’ are outstanding!”

 

“There is a word for advertising like this, and that word is ‘hypocrisy’.”

 

The SK-II campaign video proved to be a huge success – it had already hit 1.2 million views on Youku within the first day of launching. The reactions on Chinese social media were overall very positive, as mainly female netizens recognized their own experiences in the video. Some exemplary netizens’ reactions were: “Whether I’m married or not is nobody’s business,” or: “I won’t stop pursuing my dreams because of pressure from society,” and: “Marriage is about feeling, not about age.”

But the ad also had critics. Although women’s rights activist Zheng Churan generally welcomed the ad despite its commercial motives, she did criticize how it focused on the stereotype of the “leftover woman”, ignoring “the struggles of poor, less-educated women”. As she said: “We only see white-collar, elite women in this ad, but an 18-year-old factory girl pressed into marriage still has no voice” (Japan Times).

State media outlet Xinhua news quoted online female writer Gu Yingying saying that the ad “splashes a bottle of dirty water onto (women’s) independence and confidence”, and that it was “full of sentiments of depression and messages about society’s intolerance and conservatism”.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on the video being “welcomed across China”, but also called it an ad for “pro-singledom”.

Outside the China media sphere, Quartz writer Annalisa Merelli responded to the campaign with an article titled “Another viral ad tries to “empower” women while selling them products to look young forever“. In this article, Merelli writes: “There is a word for advertising like this, and that word is “hypocrisy”. To this, she adds:

No matter the amount of moving music and public displays of support, there is simply no way a beauty brand should be able to both profit from a growing huge market ($191.7 billion projected globally for anti-aging alone) that feeds off the idea that you look too dark-skinned and too old, and also play fairy godmother of female empowerment” (Quartz, April 12).

 

“The exclusion of the ’18-year-old factory girl’ is understandable: she is not SK-II’s target audience.”

 

But how ‘hypocritical’ is this ad for addressing China’s ‘leftover women’ phenomenon while having commercial interests? First, the brand does not hide the video’s commercial aspect. On the contrary, the SK-II brand logo is clearly marked in the ad and the video was released from official SK-II channels. Second, the women represented in the video are the brand’s intended consumers. Within China, it’s mostly the highly educated and urban women who buy SK-II kinds of brands and suffer pressure from society for being unmarried- in that way, there simply and very apparently is a way that a beauty brand can profit from a huge market while encouraging their “female empowerment”.

The exclusion of the ’18-year-old factory girl’ is understandable from a commercial perspective: she is not SK-II’s target audience. An SK-II moisturizer currently is priced around 1370 RMB (±211 US$) on Tmall. According to China Labour Bulletin, the minimum wages in China vary across China, from 850 RMB per month (131 US$ )to 2030 RMB (313 US$). SK-II products simply are an unattainable luxury for many women in China, except for those women who generally have a solid educational background, a blossoming career, and the access to high-end stores that sell SK-II – which are often the same women facing the ‘leftover’ pressure.

Commercial motives aside, the pressure China’s unmarried women suffer is real. About 80% of China’s bachelorettes over the age of 24 experience pressure by their families to get married, whilst a Zhenai survey pointed out that 50% of Chinese men think women are already ‘leftover’ when they are unmarried by the age of 25.

The pressure, being both familial and societal, comes from all angles. Parents, coming from a completely different generation, often lack the understanding that their daughter is waiting for ‘the one’. As the dad in the video says: “In our days, matchmaking was simple: you got matched, you got married.” They then suffer extra pressure because those born after 1978 were children of China’s one-child policy, which means they are often their parents’ only child able to give them a grandchild.

In society at large, the pressure is also double-faced. Besides deeply-rooted Confucian ideas about respecting one’s parents by getting married and fulfilling one’s role as “good wife and wise mother”, there is also an existing unbalance in male/female ratio. With millions of men left without an eligible partner and an aging China, there is ample societal need for single women to settle down and get married – which makes being ‘leftover’ all the more difficult. The fact that there are Chinese writers and academics calling on women to set some of their personal happiness aside to get married “for the country and for society” does not make things easier.

 

“By choosing the ‘leftover’ issue and turning it into a positive message, SK-II has rebranded itself in the PRC as a progressive and empowering brand name.”

 

SK-II was not hypocritical in being a commercial company releasing an empowering message, nor is the pressure on women it pictures unrealistic. The parents’ swift transformation after seeing their daughter’s ad, however, could be said to be somewhat starry-eyed; their sudden understanding for their daughter’s situation is unlikely to change traditional perceptions on China’s unmarried women overnight. This does not make SK-II hypocritical; it just makes the video the commercial that it is. Luxury brands are supposed to give consumers a mental connection to positivity, confidence, and bright possibilities; not leave us pessimistic about the future.

The brand’s choice for the topic of ‘leftover women’ is a strategic one. SK-II had to make up for some of its wrinkled past in China. The consumers it mainly needs to win over are also the women who often face pressure in everyday China. By choosing the ‘leftover’ issue and turning it into a positive message, SK-II has rebranded itself in the PRC as a progressive and empowering brand name. It also profits from one of the world’s most important markets by doing so. Through this video, SK-II has won the sympathy of an audience of millions who have cash to spend on the luxury items SK-II promotes.

An additional reason why SK-II’s campaign focus is a smart strategic move, is that the phenomenon of ‘leftover women’ is also a popular recurring topic internationally; the struggles of single Chinese women have captured the interest of the mainstream Western media for some years now. The ad campaign therefore went viral both in and outside – killing two birds in one stone.

All in all, Forsman & Bodenfors have done a great job at what they do: SK-II’s brand name is all over the web, the majority of Chinese netizens welcomed the ‘change destiny’ message with open arms, and they have reiterated what the product behind the campaign is all about. After all, who doesn’t want a pressure-free life, a wrinkle-free face, and a happy end to a troubled story?

– By Manya Koetse

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Fashion & Beauty

Chinese Fashion First: Consumer Nationalism and ‘China Chic’

Consumer sentiments on Western brands and made-in-China fashion are changing.

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At a time when Chinese media, celebrities, and consumers are condemning and boycotting Western brands, Chinese fashion and luxury brands are flourishing in a new era of “proudly made in China.”

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

“The first thing Chinese fashion magazines should do is support the Chinese fashion industry, Chinese domestic brands, and Chinese designers!” In a video that went viral on social media, Hung Huang (洪晃), the famous American-Chinese television host and publisher of fashion magazine iLook, called out for a healthy development of China’s fashion industry that does not rely on Western brands to continue growing.

Hung Huang’s remarks were made in late March of 2021, around the time when a social media storm broke out in China over the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and its brand members – including H&M, Nike, and Adidas – for no longer sourcing cotton from China’s Xinjiang region. This boycott generated a huge backlash in mainland China. The online anger was mainly directed at H&M, since the Swedish retailer is a top member of the BCI and had previously released a statement on its site in which the company said it was “deeply concerned” over reports of alleged forced labor in the production of cotton in Xinjiang.

The news developments were followed by a wave of social media boycott campaigns and Chinese brand ambassadors cutting ties with international brands. It also ignited a social media movement in support of domestic brands, ‘made in China,’ and Xinjiang as China’s largest cotton-growing area.

The hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” (#我支持新疆棉花#) received a staggering 7.9 billion views on Weibo within a few weeks time. Simultaneously, a rising confidence in national brands became increasingly visible on social media, where the calls for supporting domestic brands are growing louder.

A recent survey by state media outlet Global Times suggests that most Chinese consumers believe that Western brands could be replaced by Chinese ones. The article claims that 75 percent of its survey respondents agree that “national products could fully or partially replace Western products.”

 
Proudly Made in China
 

Recent years have not just seen a rise in Chinese fashion brands, but also the emergence of a fashion scene where traditional Chinese elements play a major role. The Hanfu movement, for example, seeks to revitalize the wearing of Han Chinese ethnic clothing. But beyond that, brands are also weaving more Chinese themes into everyday fashion items such as sneakers and t-shirts.

China themed fashion on e-commerce platform Taobao.

The rise in popularity of Chinese fashion brands and styles was dubbed the “China Chic” trend by CGTN in 2020. “China Chic” is a translation of “guócháo” (国潮), which literally means “national tide,” referring to the rise of domestic brands, with their designs often incorporating culturally Chinese elements into the latest trends. In 2021, for the first time ever, the Spring Festival Gala (Chinese state media’s biggest live televised event) also included a fashion show to show the beauty of Chinese costumes to “demonstrate cultural confidence.”

With celebrity endorsements being one of the most important strategies for social media marketing, Chinese celebrities play a crucial role in this trend as guócháo ambassadors. Chinese actor and singer Xiao Zhan (肖战) was praised on social media for becoming the new brand ambassador of the Chinese sportswear brand Lining. When celebrity Wang Yibo became the spokesperson for the domestic brand Anta Sports, one Weibo hashtag page on the topic received over one billion views (#王一博代言安踏#) in late April of 2021. The promotional poster featuring Wang Yibo shows him wearing a t-shirt with “China” on it, including the national flag – profiling Anta as a nation-loving brand.

The rising popularity of ‘made in China’ fashion is noteworthy in a consumer culture where Western brands are often viewed as being of higher quality than domestically produced fashion. The very fact that these foreign brands succeeded in gaining access to China’s market is, in the eyes of many consumers, a reason to believe they must be of higher quality.[1] Those sentiments now seem to be shifting.

A recent Chinese short documentary produced by Tmall titled “Proudly Made in China” (爆款中国) discusses how Western brands have dominated the Chinese fashion and luxury market for years, making it more difficult for Chinese brands to become big players in their own field.

“Why are Chinese brands not as highly accepted by Chinese consumers?”, asks Li Jiaqi (李佳琦), an influencer and new brand recruiter for Tmall who is featured in the short film: “Why do Chinese consumers seem to have a preconceived and biased view that Chinese products are of poor quality?”

In the short film, Li explains that Chinese consumers have since long had worries about buying Chinese brands, and that one slight problem with a product will automatically negatively reflect on the entire brand.

Existing consumer preferences for Western brands have even created the idea that Chinese brands should register abroad and pose as a foreign brand to enlarge their chances to succeed in the Chinese market.

China’s flourishing live-streaming market and domestic e-commerce platforms have provided new opportunities for Chinese brands to shine once their products gain consumer recognition. Especially younger consumers, those born after 1995 or 2000, show more confidence in Chinese brands than the generations before them.

In the “Proudly Made in China” film, this growing trust in domestic brands among Chinese younger generations is linked to a striking confidence and pride in China, its national identity, and its culture. On Weibo, some commenters replied: “This is the era of domestic brands!”

 
Western Brand Controversies
 

Although the influence of national pride on China’s young consumers might already have been strong before, there are also changing dynamics in the relation between Chinese consumers and Western brands which seem to have boosted the ‘guócháo’ and domestic brand trend; Chinese brands have been cast in a more positive light over the past few years due to the controversies involving Western brands.

In 2018, Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) faced consumer outrage in China for publishing a culturally insensitive advertising campaign that showed a Chinese model clumsily using chopsticks to eat Italian dishes such as pizza, cannoli, and spaghetti. The campaign, which was titled “D&G Loves China,” completely backfired with many finding it racist and sexist and vowing to boycott the brand. The controversy became so big that a big D&G fashion show in Shanghai was canceled and the company saw a slump in its business on the mainland.

Still from the promotional D&G video that was deemed racist in China, causing major controversy in 2018 (whatsonweibo).

In 2019, many different international fashion brands, including Versace, Coach, Calvin Klein, Givenchy, and ASICS, were condemned by Chinese netizens for listing Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as separate countries or regions – not part of China – on their official websites or brand T-shirts. Chinese celebrities cut their collaborations with many of these brands.

When in 2020 the aforementioned Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) announced that it was ceasing all operations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region amid accusations of “forced labor” there, backlash in China further grew against the organization and the brands affiliated to it. As reported by CGTN, BCI has recently removed its statement on Xinjiang cotton from its website (allegedly this was related to a cyber attack), but the discussions on the position of Western brands in China continue, with both state media and netizens sending out the message that “foreign companies that slander China” are not welcome in the country.

 
The Future of Fashion Brands in China
 

“Boycott Nike? Support domestic brands? What are we supposed to do now?” It is a question posed by the Chinese ‘Sneakersbar’ vlogger Fang (@鞋吧Sneakersbar), a sportswear-focused self-media account with over 3,5 million followers on Weibo. The question resonates with many consumers, who are caught between politics, patriotism, and personal preferences for certain brands.

In their latest video, Sneakersbar makes up the balance on where Western brands, especially those affiliated with BCI, stand in the Chinese market today. On the one hand, Fang argues, many foreign brands, including Adidas, Nike, H&M, Uniqlo, and others, have already become part of China’s commercial fashion landscape and many consumers love these brands and their products. On the other hand, these foreign brands are also making political choices that Chinese consumers cannot ignore. But does this mean they should be boycotted forever? Does it mean that you should look down on others buying these products?

The video by popular weibo account Sneakersbar: “Boycott Nike? Support Domestic Brands? What are we supposed to do?”

The answer is that consumers should stay rational in their choices, Fang argues. This means that choosing Chinese brands out of a form of “rational patriotism” is fine, but people should not attack others merely because they wear foreign brands or work in their shops. The same goes for those consumers who only want to buy foreign brands just because they are foreign; they could also consider Chinese products to support domestic brands – especially those brands which refrain from copying foreign ones and have developed their own unique designs and styles.

Many commenters on Weibo support Fang’s message of “reasonable patriotism without blind worship” (“理性爱国,也不盲目崇拜”), supporting the idea that Western and Chinese brands can co-exist and that they can be competitors in a market where Chinese fashion labels are getting more room to grow.

“Nationalism and patriotism offer opportunities for Chinese brands,” one Weibo user writes: “China Chic and China fashion trends are putting more pressure on foreign brands. Because of the speedy rise of Chinese domestic brands, which are producing high-quality products and are applying smart marketing methods, more and more patriotic young people are buying their products.”

It is clear that many consumers in China support domestic brands and hope that Chinese fashion can flourish within its own market. But there are also those voices stressing the importance of consumers’ freedom to buy the brands that suit them, wherever they are from and regardless of politics. One person commented: “Western or Chinese brand, I just want to wear the shoes that are most comfortable for me to walk in.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 
[1] Tian, Kelly and Lily Dong. 2011. Consumer-Citizens of China: The Role of Foreign Brands in the Imagined Future of China. London & New York: Routledge. Page 7.
 

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Luo Tianyi and the Booming Virtual Idol Market in China

The virtual entertainment market is exploding in China.

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They are featured on China’s biggest TV shows and on the covers of fashion magazines: they’re virtual idols yet their success is very real.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

At the Spring Festival Gala of 2021, the Chinese state media’s annual televised event that only invites the country’s top-notch performers, the virtual idol Luo Tianyi (洛天依) made a guest appearance.

It was a big media moment that showed the growing importance of virtual superstars in Chinese pop culture. Luo’s performance was even announced on the show’s promo posters, making this the first time ever for a virtual star to be on the show like this.

Virtual celebrities such as Luo Tianyi are also called ‘vsingers’ and often have an enormous fanbase. What is the story behind Luo Tianyi and the boom of virtual superstars in China, leading to the remarkable appearance of a non-human celebrity in the country’s biggest mainstream TV show?

 
Luo Tianyi: The First Chinese Vsinger
 

Although it was the first time for Luo Tianyi to appear at the Spring Festival Gala, it was not her first big performance. The superstar previously showed up as holograph live at big events such as the Bilibili night, and in 2019 she shared a stage with renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

Promotional poster for the Luo Tianyi and Lang Lang concert.

Such a performance does not come easy. It takes months to design the looks and the moves. The holographic appearance of Luo Tianyi and the spectacular two-hour show took around six months of preparation by around 200 professionals involved in the production of Luo Tianyi.

Luo Tianyi is a so-called ‘vocaloid’ singer – a Mandarin Chinese language virtual character that was originally featured in the voice synthesizer software called VOCALOID developed by Yamaha, using third parties to create the characters. Vocaloid is a commercial product (released in 2004) with the purpose of enabling users to get a singer for lyrics and melodies without needing to hire an actual human singer.

The Shanghai Henian company collaborated with Tokyo-based Bplats in developing Luo Tianyi. The character was based on the winner of a contest that was organized in support of creating the first Chinese Vocaloid. The real-life singer whose voice was used for the creation of Tianyi is Chinese singer Shan Xin (山新).

Luo Tianyi was officially launched in 2012 as a 15-year-old entertainer and vsinger. By now, she has around five million followers on her Weibo account (@Vsinger_洛天依) where she posts about her performances, with thousands of people liking and sharing these posts.

 
Virtual Idol Boom: From Japan to China
 

According to Chinese state media outlet Global Times, 2020 was the year that virtual idols really took off in China, going hand in hand with the growing popularity of livestreaming.

Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili has contributed to the growing success of virtual idols in China. Bilibili is a homebase for many fan communities in China, since it is mainly themed around animation, comic, and games (ACG). It is one of the earliest platforms in China to broadcast virtual idol concerts, and in 2020 it held China’s first concert consisting solely of virtual performers under the title ‘BML-VR 2020’ (link).

The Bilibili concert featured a performance by various virtual entertainers, including the popular Hiseki Erio. Hiseki Erio is not Chinese, but Japanese. So is Hatsune Miki, one of the most famous virtual idols ever.

You could say Japan is the birthplace of virtual idols – a history that goes back to 1996 when Kyoko Date, also known as DK-96 or ‘Digital Kid 1996,’ made her debut as the first virtual talent.

Virtual idols come in various shapes, forms, and subgenres, and they all have their different background stories. Hatsune Miki was released in 2007 as the embodiment of the Vocolaid software developed by Crypton Future, and then there are the popular virtual Youtubers, ‘vtubers’, with virtual talent agencies such as Hololive also thriving in Japan.

The term ‘virtual Youtuber’ came with the arrival of Kizuna AI, who posted her first introduction Youtube video in late 2016. Kizuna, who later became a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization, is still considered one of the most popular vtubers on earth.

With the great popularity of Japanese manga and anime on the Chinese market, Japanese virtual idols also gained a strong foothold in the People’s Republic since around 2017. Hatsune Miki alone already has over 3,4 million fans on Weibo (@初音未来CryptonFutureMedia).

Virtual idols are increasingly popular in China, where Chinese virtual stars are springing up (Luo Tianyi, Ling, Xing Tong, Yousa).

The virtual entertainment market is now exploding in China, where the online ACG culture is flourishing on Bilibili and beyond.

Since Japanese popular culture products began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. As a counter-reaction, there has been stronger promotion of the production of made-in-China animations and other ACG products.

While China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is now also a wave of new China-born virtual stars, such as the Bilibili idol Yousa (冷鸢), or Xing Tong (星瞳), a virtual idol from Tencent. Chinese gaming company Papergames made the virtual character Nuan Nuan (暖暖) to also live outside of the gaming world; she is now a singer, a stylist, and a popular fashion ambassador.

Ling (right) featured on the cover of Vogue Me.

There is also Ling (翎), the Chinese virtual influencer who loves Peking opera, tea culture, and calligraphy. Ling, who was created by Next Generation studio and Shanghai AI startup Xmov, appeared on the CCTV show Bravo Youngsters (上线吧华彩少年) and was featured on the cover of Vogue Me in February 2021 alongside actual real-life celebrities.

Chinese virtual influencer Ling.

The number of Chinese virtual celebrities is expected to grow along with the growing market. In October of 2020, the Chinese variety show Dimension Nova (跨次元新星) first aired as a talent show scouting new virtual talent.

 
Virtual Commercials and Controversies
 

The growing influence of the virtual entertainment economy and culture in China is becoming more and more noticeable in pop music, commercial culture, and even in the sphere of politics.

Virtual celebrities are so popular that brands are also jumping in on this craze by hiring them as brand ambassadors or by creating their own cyber stars. Tencent’s Xing Tong, for example, modeled for Levi’s and sportswear brand Li Ning. Nuan Nuan, among others, was featured in a commercial for hair care brand LUX. Luo Tianyi appeared in campaigns for Huawei, Pizza Hut and KFC.

In January of 2021, McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador. They are not the only one: there are over thirty companies in China now using a virtual brand ambassador. The new McDonald’s idol was welcomed by Weibo users, where the news of her launch received 200 million views.

McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador.

The virtual idol influence also became apparent when Japanese ‘Hololive’ virtual celebrities Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco recently got caught up in a diplomatic row because they referred to Taiwan as a “country” when discussing their YouTube channel analytics during a livestream, leading to controversy among their Chinese fanbase.

In a statement published on Bilibili by Cover (the Japanese company behind the Hololive talent agency that the virtual celebrities in question were under), the agency apologized for what had happened. Nevertheless, both virtual stars involved in the controversy were banned from Bilibili and eventually the entire Chinese Hololive branch was shut down.

This example shows that although virtual idols are generally regarded as a safe option for brands and companies because, unlike real celebrities, they are not likely to get caught up in scandals, it is still possible for them to spark controversy.

Nevertheless, the future looks bright for virtual stars in China with still an enormous market for Luo Tianyi and others to conquer, with plenty of room for growth. From concerts to fashion shows to live streaming channels, from Weibo to Bilibili and beyond, we are bound to see virtual stars increasingly become a part of everyday life in China.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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