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China’s Exam Fever and ‘Gaokao Economy’

It is time for China’s gaokao (高考) – the national college entrance exams. The exams, that are taking place on June 7 and 8, are attracting nationwide attention – both offline and online. Not only does the gaokao dominate the top trending lists on China’s social media, companies also profit from the so-called “gaokao economy” (高考经济).

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It is time for the gaokao (高考) – China’s national college entrance exams. The exams, that are taking place on June 7 and 8, are attracting nationwide attention both offline and online. Not only do the gaokao dominate the top trending lists on China’s social media, companies also profit from the booming “gaokao economy” (高考经济).

China’s gaokao (高考) week, the time of the national college entrance exam, is one of the biggest events of the year. During this time, topics like ‘the 2016 Exams’ (#2016高考#) are trending on social media, and Weibo accounts revolving around the exams, like Sina’s Gaokao Newsflash (@高考快讯), are suddenly very popular.

More than 9 million students are taking the exams this year. The gaokao (literally: ‘higher exams’) are a prerequisite for entering China’s higher education institutions, and are usually taken by students in their last year of senior high school. The exams take place during a period of 2 days. Scoring high grades for this exam can give high school students access to a better college, which enlarges their chances of obtaining a good job after graduation. Because the exam results are potentially life-changing, the gaokao period is generally a stressful time for students and their parents.

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China’s social media platforms are well-visited during the exam period. Many exam candidates post photos of their study material or go online for support, posting encouraging words to themselves and to their fellow students on Sina Weibo. Weibo is also the go-to platform for parents whose children are taking exams, as these strenuous times are generally stressful for the entire family. Weibo currently therefore also has trending hashtags like “Respect for all parents supporting their kids during exams” (#向高考陪读父母致敬#).

“Gaokao Economy”

Many businesses and universities profit from the nationwide gaokao fever by drawing attention to themselves and trying to make money during this time. “Gaokao economics” (高考经济) refers to this phenomenon of businesses specifically using the exam-period to promote their brands and make more profit.

On Weibo, gaokao economics are mainly visible through brands wishing exam students good luck; making sure they link their logo to the exams. The trending topic ‘2016 exams’, for example, is sponsored by the popular herbal tea brand Wong Lo Kat. wanglaojiThere are also various brands and companies that organize special exam activities and advertise them through social media. Wenzhou radio announced that they are organizing special local taxi’s to drive students to their exam rooms and back.

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App developers and app stores take this opportunity to promote apps focused on studying and concentration. The weekly recommendations of the Chinese Apple app store are specially themed around “Exam Preparation” (专注备考), with various apps listed to help students organize their study information, improve time efficiency, relax in between studying, and meditate for better focus.

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Many educational institutes also profit from the exam fever, either by offering expensive cram courses or by using this time for promotion. While the exams are still in full swing, universities are already trying their best to attract prospective students. Under the hashtag “I Will be Waiting for You in University” (#我在大学等你#), many universities are posting their campaign videos and publicity photos, featuring university students holding signs saying “I will be waiting for you at [university name]”.

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But the gaokao economy goes far beyond the digital environment. Many companies jump at this opportunity to offer anything students might need, from clothes to food and other basic needs. There are also many hotels, for example, providing hourly rooms and special discounts for gaokao candidates who need some room for study or accommodation. These so-called ‘exam rooms’ (高考房) are currently very popular, as they give students the opportunity to concentrate and get a good night sleep. One Shijiazhuang hotel provides free yogurt and chocolate for exam candidates, as well as lucky signs in their hotel rooms to boost their chances of success.

There are also companies offering special ‘gaokao nanny’ (高考保姆) services, as reported by 961 News. ‘Gaokao nannies’ do everything they can to make the exam student as comfortable and focused at possible; cooking them the right food, taking them to the exam room and alleviate their stress through talking.

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As the ‘gaokao economy’ has grown bigger through the years, there are also media criticizing the phenomenon. Some media say businesses shouldn’t profit from students, others say it is not good as it puts extra strain on those families that are already having financial struggles, as they cannot afford to spend more during their child’s exam period.

But not all netizens agree with the media’s critical stance: “Don’t these companies just need to make money too? It’s not like they’re cheating people,” one netizen writes: “I am not in this business, but you’re making a big fuss over nothing.” Another Weibo user responds: “There are just so many people who need to make money in this country – and they’ll think of anything to do so.”

– By Diandian Guo & Manya Koetse

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

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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 Marketing & Advertising

When Ad Breaks Get Weird: Branded Content in Chinese TV Dramas Is Ruining It For the Viewers

China’s ubiquitous inserted ad marketing is alienating viewers from their favorite TV drama characters.

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Ad breaks can be annoying, but when it’s the main character of your favorite historical drama promoting the latest smartphone, it can actually ruin the viewer experience. In recent online discussions, China’s ubiquitous ‘Inserted Ad Marketing’ (中插广告), that goes beyond product placement, is being attacked by netizens and media.

A 2017 Ad Age article on the high levels of branded content in China’s online TV argues that Chinese viewers generally do not mind embedded marketing. They have allegedly become so used to to all kinds of branded distractions in TV shows, dramas, and films, that it is just “another part of the entertainment” (Doland 2017). But recent discussions on Chinese social media signal that the general sentiments regarding inserted sponsored content are changing.

On January 6, Chinese author Ma Boyong (@马伯庸, 4.5 million followers) posted an article on Weibo in which he criticized the phenomenon of inserted ad content in Chinese television series, saying the marketing style often does not suit the characters and is making the actors less credible.

Although Ma does not oppose to embedded marketing per se, he argues it hurts the credibility of TV dramas and the viewer’s experience when it does not blend in with the style of the TV drama and its characters.

One of the TV dramas where the sponsored segments ‘hurt’ the show, according to Ma, is Mystery of Antiques (古董局中局, 2018) that is based on one of the author’s novels. The actor Qiao Zhenyu (乔振宇), who plays the leading role, allegedly “looks like a fool” because of the inserted ad.

The type of advertising, that is central to this recent discussion, goes beyond product placement; it is the type of ad that appears inside (online) TV shows in which the actors, in character, straightforwardly promote a certain brand and product, sometimes in a scene dialogue (‘storyline ads’), but also often while looking directly into the camera (see example here or here, Chinese term: zhōngchā guǎnggào 中插广告).

The hashtag ‘Ma Boyong Roasts Inserted Ad Marketing’ (#马伯庸吐槽中插广告#) had received more than 50 million views on Weibo by Sunday night, with the overall majority of people supporting the author’s stance.

“Finally someone says this,” one commenter said: “When it just started out, it was new, and I could endure it, but now it just really annoys me.” “It is really disruptive,” others agree.

 

A New Kind of Money-Making Machine

 

China’s history of TV advertisement is not a long one; it wasn’t until 1979 that China’s first TV commercial was aired. Since then, the industry has blossomed, and branded content has become ubiquitous; the first TV drama incorporating product placement was broadcasted in 1991 (Li 2016).

Product placement is known as a powerful marketing tool since it is inescapable, has a long shelf life, is inexpensive, and unobtrusive (Huan et al 2013, 508). But as China’s product placement has been turning into ‘branded entertainment’ within the settings of the show, it is losing its ‘unobtrusiveness.’

Unsurprisingly, this is not the first time this type of advertising receives criticism. In 2017, various Chinese media, such as People’s Daily, noted the rise of inserted product ads, stating that TV dramas were “shooting themselves in the foot” with these ad campaigns.

China’s popular ‘inserted ad breaks’ remind of the weird and obvious product placement mocked in The Truman Show (1998).

When the protagonist of a dynastic costume drama suddenly promotes a new smartphone app during an inserted ad break, he falls out of character, and the entire drama loses credibility. Do you remember those weird ad breaks in the famous American movie The Truman Show? Even Truman did not fall for that!

Cartoon by People’s Daily

In China, this particular type of advertising can be traced back to the 2006 TV drama My Own Swordsman (武林外传), in which the characters suddenly turn to the camera in promoting a “White Camel Mountain” medicinal powder (watch the famous segment here).

Although that scene was for entertainment purposes only (the product was non-existent), it became reality in 2013, when the TV series Longmen Express (龙门镖局) first started using this kind of ‘creative’ advertising. Many online dramas then followed and started to use these inserted ads, especially since 2015 (Beijing Daily 2017). The promoted products are often new apps or money lending sites.

In the beginning, many people appreciated the novel way of advertising, and as the online video industry rose, so did the price of such advertisements. In a timeframe of roughly two years, their price became ten times higher. These type of ‘ad breaks’ have become an important and relatively easy money-making machine for drama productions (Beijing Daily 2017). In 2016 alone, Chinese TV drama productions made 800 million rmb (±116 million USD) through this marketing method – a figure that has been on the rise ever since.

 

The V-Effect: From Vips to Verfremdung

 

In China’s flourishing online streaming environment, one of the problems with inserted ad campaigns is that even ‘VIP members’ of popular video sites such as iQiyi cannot escape them, nor ‘skip’ them, even though they pay monthly fees to opt out of commercials (similar to YouTube Premium).

“The reason I signed up for a VIP membership is to avoid ads, and now we get this,” many annoyed netizens comment on Weibo.

Although that is one point that many people are dissatisfied with, the biggest complaint on social media regarding the inserted ad phenomenon is that it breaks down audience engagement in the show they are watching, and alienates them from the character, which is also known as verfremdungseffekt, distancing effect, or simply the ‘V-effect,’  a performing arts concept coined by German playwright Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s.

The “direct adress” of Frank Underwood in House of Cards is one of the reasons the show became such a hit.

The Brechtian “direct address” technique, one of the characteristics that made the American TV series House of Cards so successful, is employed to “break the fourth wall” – the imaginary wall between the actors and audience  – and serves a clear purpose: it makes viewers less emotionally attached to the characters and the narrative, it makes them more conscious and less likely to ‘lose themselves’ in the show they are watching, and is meant to provoke a social-critical audience response.

But this is exactly the faux pas China’s ubiquitous ‘creative inserted ads’ make in letting popular TV drama characters promote a new app or soda; it is not meant to provoke a social-critical response, it is meant to advertise a product. But by alienating audiences from the show for a commercial and non-meaningful purpose, they actually reach the opposite effect of what their marketing objective is. Audiences become annoyed, less engaged, and ‘exit the show’ (in Chinese, the term ‘出戏’ [disengage from the performance] is used).

“These kind of ads make the entire drama seem so low,” a typical comment on Weibo says. “What can we do? As long as people pay for it, they’ll do it,” others say.

Despite the recent attack on China’s ‘branded entertainment,’ there is no sign of a change in these marketing techniques. Perhaps, if critique persist, this might change in the future. For now, disgruntled viewers turn to social media to vent their frustrations: “These ads completely make me lose interest in the story, they need to be criticized. I’m happy someone stood up to say it.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Beijing Daily (北京日报). 2017. “创意中插广告泛滥,唯独缺了创意” [The Overflow of Creative Inserted Ads, Only They’re Lacking Creativity] (in Chinese). Beijing Daily, Oct 18. Available online http://bjrb.bjd.com.cn/html/2017-10/18/content_183998.htm [Jan 6th 2019].

Doland, Angela. 2017. “China’s online TV pushes product placement to crazy levels. Even crazier: Viewers don’t mind.” Ad Age, May 16. Vol.88(10), p.0030.

Huan Chen , En-Ying Lin , Fang Liu & Tingting Dai. 2013. “‘See Me or Not, I Am There’: Chinese White-Collar Moviegoers’ Interpretation of Product Placements in Chinese Commercial Movies.” Journal of Promotion Management, 19:5, 507-533.

Li, Hongmei. 2016. Advertising and Consumer Culture in China. Cambridge: Polity Press.


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©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Marketing & Advertising

When Hotpot Gets Really Hot: Haidilao Customers Shocked by Steamy TV

Haidilao is taking its customer service to a whole new level.

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First published .

Customers dining at a Haidilao hotpot restaurant in Wuhan on January 5th were shocked when the big television screen in the restaurant, usually used for showing Haidilao ads, suddenly showed an X-rated film.

Haidilao is China’s most famous hotpot chain, and is usually known for its excellent service. On busy nights, people stand in line for hours at the Haidilao restaurants, that are always packed full of people enjoying the good food and outstanding hospitality.

The incident, that happened on Saturday afternoon at the restaurant’s Great Ocean mall location, has now made its rounds on Chinese social media after one Haidilao customer shared photos of the embarrassing moment on Weibo. At time of writing, the hashtag “Haidilao TV shows vulgar scene” (#海底捞电视播不雅画面#) has received more than 240 million views.

Waiters at the restaurant were fast to turn off the television. According to some online reports, a reporter visited the restaurant a few hours after the incident happened, and confirmed the television was still turned off at night.

On Sunday, January 6, Haidilao issued a statement in which the restaurant apologized to the customers for the “vulgar content” that was displayed on the television, and that police are investigating the case. Online pornography is banned in China, and spreading X-rated films is illegal.

It is yet unsure how the film ended up on the restaurant’s screen, and whether it was a Haidilao employee who was watching the video and then made a mistake, or that a customer was using IR or Bluetooth on their smartphone and (purposely) connected it to their screen.

The incident has provoked hilarity on social media, where some netizens suggest that the X-rated film perhaps was a “customer demand” and that “Haidilao’s service is beyond expectations,” or that people were “eating and getting hard.”

The incident, as of now, does not seem to negatively affect people’s love for the Haidilao brand. “Please don’t close it down, I still want to eat hotpot,” some netizens comment, while others simply state: “Haidilao, I’m coming!”

(PS Want to know more about steamy hotpots? Check out What’s on Weibo’s sister site Hotpot Ambassador!)

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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