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China Marketing & Advertising

Ofo’s Bike Sharing Services Spark Outrage on Chinese Social Media for “Giving Privileges to Foreigners”

Apparently, all it takes is to be an American to get your deposit back from Ofo?

Gabi Verberg

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When one man dreaded waiting forever on the phone with Ofo’s customer service to get a deposit back, he decided the “foreigner reporting strategy,” and it allegedly worked. It is a story that is now going viral on Chinese social media, where netizens are outraged about the company’s “unfair treatment” of customers.

When one Chinese Ofo customer decided he did not feel like waiting forever on the phone to get his deposit of 199 yuan back, he decided to go “foreign.” Changing his account details, he pretended to be a man from California living in China for the past three years and sent an email to Ofo in English, Tencent News and other Chinese media report. Not only did he immediately get his deposit back, the company even sent him an apology letter.

For over a year now, the Ofo bike sharing service company is facing financial troubles which have forced the company to lay off workers and have made it extra difficult for Ofo users to get a refund of their 199 yuan ($29) deposit.

As reported by Technode earlier this month, amidst recent reports on Ofo’s alleged nearing bankruptcy and rumors of an acquisition by ride-hailing giant Didi, users have rushed to get their deposits back.

In the CCTV2 Economic News (经济信息联播) programme on December 3rd, Ofo users told reporters that the company’s app now only has a “top up” credit button in its settings, and that the button for “getting a refund of deposit” had been removed. When people tried calling the service center of the company, many got no response, despite numerous attempts.

Ofo was founded in 2014 and first launched its services in Beijing in 2015. Ofo bikes can now be found in many cities across China, where users first pay a deposit and can then unlock and track bikes, which can be rented for one yuan by the hour, using the smartphone app.

Now, the news has gone viral of the Chinese man who not only got his deposit refunded, but even received an apology letter from Ofo. All it allegedly took for him to succeed is pretending to be a foreigner.

When the Chinese man, who goes by the username “@ztj93,” had heard that he had to go through much trouble to get his deposit back, he pretended to be an American and used Gmail to write an email to Ofo in English, of which he took a screenshot and reposted it on his Weibo account. Within a day, the money was sent back to his Alipay-account, and a letter of apology was sent to his email.

The email from “ztj93” sent to Ofo on the 13th of December, at 3:51 pm, as shared on social media:

Ofo’s reply on the 14th of December, at 10:03 am:

When the man shared his success online, news went viral immediately.

At the time of writing, the hashtag “Pretend to be foreign and Ofo refunds immediately” (#假装外国人ofo秒退押金#) has received over 140 million views on Weibo.

Many netizens praise the man for his clever approach and congratulate him with his success, while also condemning the Ofo company for their “unfair treatment” of customers, with some even expressing their hopes for the company to go bankrupt as soon as possible.

By now, the original poster has placed a letter on his Weibo account in which he expresses his surprise with the fact that Ofo actually responded to him and that he got his money back, but also with the fact that the news has blown up on Weibo as it has. The man also explains that he is a long-time user of Weibo and that he since long has used the international Weibo version (it not clear at time of writing where the man exactly adjusted his profile details and if it was on Ofo or on Weibo).

He writes that although initially, it was just funny to him, he now has mixed feelings about the entire incident; on the one hand, he is happy that he has his money back, he writes, but on the other hand, he says that it makes him “uncomfortable” knowing that Ofo might give a preferential treatment to foreigners.

While he understands people’s anger about this, he writes, he also says that this anger should stay within “reasonable realms,” which it, apparently, has not. The poster has since deleted his Ofo posts, saying he knew the power of Weibo, but that he did not expect his post to be so influential.

On Saturday night (China time), Chinese media outlet Pear Video published a video on the issue in which two spokespersons for Ofo state they do not know about the incident and will look into it. Later, the phone for Ofo’s PR services was allegedly not able to be reached again.

By Gabi Verberg and Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes

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

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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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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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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