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.
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!
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 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.”
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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Coca Cola Chicken Wings Are Here! McDonald’s China Introduces Cola Chicken on Its Menu
Add cola, add chicken, and it’s a recipe for success.
It is one of those dishes everyone in China will know of, yet its origins are somewhat murky: Cola Chicken.
Cola Chicken (可乐鸡) is a sweet and sour cooking dish using cola, chicken, ginger, soy sauce, cooking wine, and Sichuan pepper as its main ingredients (the Chinese way).
Braised Coca-Cola Chicken wings are especially popular in China, combining Chinese style braising and Coca-Cola to create juicy and savory BBQ style wings (see recipe).
According to some, Cola Chicken comes from Jinan, Shandong, where a cook in a restaurant accidentally tipped over a can of Coca Cola into a chicken dish, after which he discovered the taste of the soda matched the simmering chicken.
Others allege two Chinese Coca Cola salespersons thought of the recipe first.
Another explanation states that ‘Cola Chicken’ was already made in Western countries, using tomato sauce as one of its main ingredients. The dish then became popular in Taiwan, where the tomato sauce was replaced by soy sauce.
Whatever its origins are: Cola Chicken is hugely popular in China. So popular, in fact, that McDonald’s China announced on Weibo this week that it would add ‘traditional cola chicken wings’ to its menu.
The latest addition to the McDonald’s China menu is a special collaboration between the Coca Cola brand and McDonald’s.
“I love Mcdonald’s, I love Coca Cola, I wanna try!”, commenters on Weibo say: “I absolutely love Cola Chicken wings.”
Although social media responses to McDonald’s Cola Chicken have been very positive, some who have actually tried it out are less enthusiastic.
“I had them, but.. I actually didn’t taste any cola flavor. Are we supposed to soak them in our coke first?” one disappointed netizen wonders.
Others also expressed similar sentiments, writing: “I am confused by how it tastes” and: “I think it tastes really weird, but I can taste the Cola in it!”
But others who tried it are very happy: “I loved them! While chewing, the skin of the chicken bursts open, giving you that feeling of a carbonated drink. And the chicken is slightly sour and sweet, with that hint of Coca Cola.”
The Cola Chicken wings are not the only special additions to the McDonald’s China menu, which also offers “Sichuan Spicy Double Chicken Burger,” “Jumbo Milk Tea,” “Taro Pie,” and “Corn cups.”
Earlier this year, Mcdonald’s China also introduced a Japanese beef rice bowl to its main menu selections.
Many introductions to China’s McDonald’s menu have come and gone over the past few years. Whether Cola Chicken will be one of the items on the McDonald’s menu that’s here to stay is yet to be seen.
Talking about Cola Chicken, a recommendation: the touching and funny short documentary (25 min) ‘Cola Chicken’ tells the story of the Chinese Chen Chen, who works as a tour guide in Spain, and dreams of opening up his own Cola Chicken restaurant one day:
By Manya Koetse
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Faking Street Photography: Why Staged “Street Snaps” Are All the Rage in China
Staged street photography is the latest “15 minutes of fame” trend on Chinese social media.
Recently a new trend has popped up on Chinese social media: people posting short videos on their accounts that create the impression that they are being spotted by street fashion photographers. Some look at the camera in a shy way, others turn away, then there are those who smile and cheekily stick out their tongue at the camera.
Although it may appear to be all spontaneous, these people – mostly women – are actually not randomly being caught on camera by one of China’s many street fashion photographers in trendy neighborhoods. They have organized this ‘fashion shoot’ themselves, often showing off their funny poses and special moves, from backward flips to splits, to attract more attention (see example in video embedded below).
These are some examples of the "pretending to be spontaneously spotted by street fashion photographer so gotta do something funny" phenomenon: pic.twitter.com/OUMhGaFG6W
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) 25 juni 2019
In doing so, these self-made models are gaining more fans on their Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu, or WeChat accounts, and are turning their social media apps into their very own stage.
Street Photography in Sanlitun
The real street photography trend has been ongoing in China for years, near trendy areas such as Hangzhou’s Yintai shopping mall, or Chengdu’s Taikoo Li.
One place that is especially known for its many street photographers is Beijing’s see-and-be-seen Sanlitun area, where photographers have since long been gathering around the Apple or Uniqlo stores with their big lens cameras to capture people walking by and their trendy fashion.
A few years ago, Thatsmag featured an article discussing this phenomenon, asking: “Who are these guys and what are they doing with their photos?”
Author Dominique Wong found that many of these people are older men, amateur photographers, who are simply snapping photos of attractive, fashionable, and unique-looking people as their hobby.
But there are also those who are working for street fashion blogs or style magazines such as P1, and are actually making money with their street snaps capturing China’s latest fashion trends.
People featured in these street snaps can sometimes go viral and become internet celebrities (网红). One of China’s most famous examples of a street photographed internet celebrity is “Brother Sharp.”
It’s been ten years since “Brother Sharp” (犀利哥), a homeless man from Ningbo, became an online hit in China for his fashionable and handsome appearance, after his street snap went trending on the Chinese internet.
Staged Street Scenes
But what if nobody’s snapping your pics and you want to go viral with your “Oh, I am being spotted by street fashion photographers” video? By setting up their own “street snap” shoots, online influencers take matters into their own hands.
It is not just individuals who are setting up these shoots; there are also companies and brands that do so in order to make their (fashion) products more famous. According to People’s Daily, in Hangzhou alone, there are over 200 photographers for such “street snaps” and hundreds of thousands of models for such “performances.”
The photographers can, supposedly, earn about 20,000 to 30,000 yuan ($2,890-$4,335) per day and the models are well paid.
In this way, the “street snap performance” phenomenon is somewhat similar to another trend that especially became apparent in China around 2015-2016, namely that of ‘bystander videos’ capturing a public scene. Although these videos seem to be real, there are actually staged.
One such example happened in 2017 when a video went viral of a young woman being scolded on a Beijing subway for wearing a revealing cosplay outfit.
The story attracted much attention on social media at the time, with many netizens siding with the young woman and praising her for responding coolly although the woman was attacking her. Later, the whole scene turned out to be staged with the purpose of generating more attention for the ad of a “cool” food delivery platform behind the older lady.
In 2015, photos of a ‘romantic proposal’ made its rounds on social media when a young man asked his pregnant girlfriend to marry him using over 50 packs of diapers in the shape of a giant heart. One bag of diapers carried a diamond ring inside. It was later said the scene was sponsored by Libero Diapers.
Both the latest street snap trend and the staged video trend are all part of China’s so-called “Wanghong economy.” Wǎnghóng (网红) is the Chinese term for internet celebrities, KOL (Key Opinion Leader) or ‘influencer.’ Influencer marketing is hot and booming in China: in 2018, the industry was estimated to be worth some $17.16 billion.
Being a wanghong is lucrative business: the more views, clicks, and fans one has, the more profit they can make through e-commerce and online advertising.
Using Chinese KOLs to boost brands can be an attractive option for advertisers, since their social media accounts have a huge fanbase. Prices vary on the amount of fans the ‘influencer’ has. In 2015, for example, the Chinese stylist Xiao P already charged RMB 76,000 ($11,060) for a one-time product mention on his Weibo account (36 million fans).
According to the “KOL budget Calculator” by marketing platform PARKLU, a single sponsored post on the Weibo account of a famous influencer will cost around RMB 60,000 ($8730).
The current staged street snap hype is interesting for various online media businesses in multiple ways. On short video app Douyin, for example, the hugely popular street snap videos come with a link that allows app users to purchase the exact same outfits as the girls in the videos.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, an online survey by Tencent found that 54% of college-age respondents had the ambition to become an “online celebrity.”
Making Non-Fashion Fashion: The Farm Field as a Catwalk
Although becoming an actual online celebrity used to be a far-fetched dream for many Chinese netizens, the latest staged-street-snap trend creates the possibility for people to experience their “15 minutes of fame” online.
Just as in previous online trends such as the Flaunt Your Wealth Challenge or A4 Waist Challenge, you see that many people soon participate in them, and that they are then followed by an “anti-movement” of people making fun of the trend or using it to promote a different social point-of-view.
The 2018 “Flaunt Your Wealth” challenge, for example, in which Chinese influencers shared pictures of themselves falling out of their cars with their expensive possessions all around them, was followed by an Anti-Flaunt Your Wealth movement, in which ordinary people mocked the challenge by showing themselves on the floor with their diplomas, military credentials, painting tools, or study books around them.
“I find [this trend] so embarrassing that I want to toss my phone away, yet I can’t help but watch it,” one Weibo user (@十一点半关手机) writes, with others agreeing, saying: “This is all so awkward, it just makes my skin crawl.”
The anti-trend answer to the staged street shoot hype now is that people are also pretending to be doing such a street snap, but ridiculing it by making over-the-top movements, doing it in ‘uncool’ places, wearing basic clothing, or setting up a funny situation (see embedded tweet below).
And then this is other example (there are many) of people mocking this pretending-to-be-spotted-by-street-photographers trend pic.twitter.com/2WBP3F326l
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) 25 juni 2019
Some of these short videos show ‘models’ walking in a rural area, pretending to be photographed by a ‘street fashion photographer’ – it’s an anti-trend that’s become a trend in itself (see videos in embedded tweets below).
There's a recent Chinese social media trend of people mocking the wannabe cool Sanlitun rich kids who are walking the streets like it's their catwalk while pretending to be spotted by street photographers. It's always the anti-cool people who are actually the coolest..👇👏 pic.twitter.com/LnEOEdyzRE
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) 24 juni 2019
Although this ‘anti-trend’ is meant in a mocking way, it is sometimes also a form of self-expression for young people for whom the Sanlitun-wannabe-models life is an extravagant and sometimes unattainable one.
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) 24 juni 2019
They don’t need trendy streets and Chanel bags to pretend to be models: even the farm field can be their catwalk.
In the end, the anti-trend “models” on Chinese social media are arguably much cooler than the influencers pretending to be photographed. Not only do they convey a sense of authenticity, they also have something else that matters the most in order to be truly cool and attractive: a sense of humor.
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