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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.


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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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 Insight

The Huawei Case Sparks Anti-American, “Support Huawei” Sentiments on Weibo

“Ever since all the news came out on Meng Wanzhou’s arrest I feel like this is Cold War 2.0,” some commenters say.

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(original image via NDTV.com)

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The latest developments in the Huawei case are a major topic of discussion on Chinese social media, sparking anti-American sentiments, along with hundreds of netizens calling for the support of Huawei.

The case involving Huawei and Meng Wanzhou is making international headlines today, now that the US Justice Department has officially filed charges against Chinese smartphone maker Huawei for allegedly stealing trade secrets from T-Mobile.

Among many other things, US prosecutors allege that Huawei launched a formal policy in which bonuses were offered to employees who succeeded in stealing confidential information from competitors (full papers here, page 19).

The Department also filed criminal charges against Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), who is the chief financial officer of Huawei and the daughter of the company’s founder Ren Zhengfei (任正非). The US is seeking the extradition of Meng Wanzhou from Canada.

The indicment papers as being shared on Weibo.

Meng was detained in Canada on December 1st of 2018 during transit at the Vancouver airport at the request of United States officials. She was released on bail on December 11. Meng’s next court date is set for February 6, 2019, in Vancouver.

 

“To the Chinese who proclaim that the American lawsuit against Huawei makes sense, where’s your conscience?”

 

Huawei responded to the accusations in state media on Tuesday, saying they were “very disappointed” about the charges, and denying that Huawei, nor its affiliates, had committed violations of US law.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the US to revoke its charges against Meng and to “stop the unreasonable suppression of Chinese companies, including Huawei, and to treat Chinese enterprises objectively and fairly.”

Meanwhile, on Chinese social media platform Weibo, the hashtag “Huawei responds to US accusations” (#华为回应美国指控#) received some 1,5 million views on Tuesday.

Among hundreds of comments, many netizens express their apparent belief that the United States is using the judicial system in a battle that is actually politically motivated, and that China’s rise as a competing technological power plays a major role in this issue.

“America has no confidence in its own technological power anymore, and has come to a point of such weakness that China’s technological strength is frightening to them,” one commenter named ‘Battle Wolf Wang Jie’ (@战狼-王杰) said.

“The goal of the US clearly is to suppress Huawei and its 5G technology, it is a fight over leadership,” one commenter wrote.

One popular Weibo tech blogging account (@科技阿宽) described the US as “a cornered dog jumping over a wall” (“狗急跳墙”), a Chinese idiom for describing desperate people resorting to desperate measures. This idiom was also used by other Weibo users commenting on the Huawei issue.

“Ever since all the news came out on the Meng Wanzhou arrest I feel like this is Cold War 2.0,” a Weibo user named Wei Zhong (@卫中) wrote about the issue: “This arms race in the field of technology can’t be avoided, and it will spread to other fields, posing a challenge to America’s leading position.”

But there are also commenters who want to know more about whether there are reasonable grounds to believe Huawei and Meng actually committed a crime: “So did they, or didn’t they?”

“Huawei needs to operate in accordance with international laws, otherwise there will be no end to the trouble,” some said, with others adding: “If they did nothing wrong, they shouldn’t be afraid to face the Americans.”

The editor-in-chief of the Chinese and English Global Times, Hu Xijin (胡锡进), called out those who suggested that the US might have sound legal grounds for the charges, writing on Weibo: “To the Chinese who proclaim today that the American lawsuit against Huawei makes sense, where’s your conscience? Have your brains been eaten by the dogs?”

 

“Was the Canadian Ambassador sacked for speaking the truth?”

 

The Huawei case news story has been developing and has been a topic of discussion ever since Meng’s arrest in December. A social media post issued by Meng shortly after her arrest became one of the biggest trending topics on Weibo of 2018.

The news that former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was detained in Beijing on December 10th of 2018 also generated online discussions on the Huawei issue, with many linking his arrest to Meng’s case.

According to many, the detainment of Meng in Canada is linked to the detainment of Kovrig in Beijing.

Earlier this week, the dismissal of the Canadian ambassador to China, John McCallum, also became big news.

McCallum’s exit was preceded by his different interview comments on the Meng Wanzhou case. He told Chinese-language journalists that Meng had “strong arguments that she can make before a judge,” and reportedly told The Star‘s Joanna Chiu that it would be “great” if the US could drop the request for Meng’s extradition.

On social media, news of McCallum’s dismissal was shared hundreds of times this week. In response to the case, Chinese columnist Sun Bo published an article titled “Was the Canadian Ambassador sacked for Speaking the Truth?” in The Observer (观察者). On Weibo, similar attitudes are expressed, with many arguing that McCallum was punished for simply “expressing his thoughts.”

Some netizens argued that McCallum had been “set up” by the interviewer and that he had said nothing wrong. One Weibo user simply argued: “If America would no longer request Meng’s extradition, then Canada would not need to detain Meng and would not need to become hostile with China, which would also be better for Canada.”

A recurring sentiment expressed by netizens on the issue was that McCallum’s dismissal clashed with Canada’s “so-called freedom of speech,” although there are also other voices stating: “When an ambassador for the government publicly issues their own personal views as they like, they do need to step down.”

 

“He talked about how we should support Huawei, but sent it from his iPhone.”

 

Amid all discussions on Weibo (where some comment threads jumped from having some hundreds comments to “no comments” and then reopened with some hundred comments again), the support for Huawei is one sentiment that stands out.

“I will stand by Huawei,” many commenters write across various threads.

“I support Huawei! America and Canada need to set Meng free!”

Others call for a boycott on Apple and American products, urging Chinese netizens to purchase Huawei instead.

There are also some, however, who point out there is some hypocrisy behind some of these statements: “I just saw a ‘Huawei defender,'”, popular tech blogger ‘Keji Xinyi’ (@科技新一) writes: “He was talking about how we should support the made-in-China Huawei brand, and that Huawei is China’s pride, that Huawei will astonish the world. Then I saw his Weibo post was sent from an iPhone.”

Others joke around: “I support Huawei! I use the Honor 7 [device] by Huawei. I absolutely will not buy an iPhone. It’s too expensive and I can’t afford it.”

Jokes aside, the Huawei case is certainly one that will continue to be discussed in many corners of Chinese social media, with many expressing concern on how this case will develop in the future – as it is not likely to blow over any time soon.

“The law will rule based on evidence,” some commenters write: “So let’s just wait and see.”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know through email.

©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

China’s Peppa Pig Movie Promo Craze: Understanding the Video and the Trend Behind It

Why Peppa is breaking the Chinese internet.

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The Peppa Pig movie promo is breaking the Chinese internet right now. Our latest Weivlog explains the video, its social context, and its background.

China’s Peppa Pig movie promo video might already be one of Weibo’s biggest trending topics of the year.

To know more about this video and its background, check out our full latest video featured here, explaining the trend in full detail – the original video lacks English subs, so we explain the video from A-Z there.

Check it out, and please subscribe to our YouTube channel if you’d like to see more explanations of Chinese trends through video.

By Manya Koetse 

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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