The Mao Zedong badges worn by China’s cycling gold medalists on Tokyo’s Olympic podium were symbolic of idol culture that has long persisted in China. While idol worshipping continues in China, much has changed since the widespread pins, portraits and pilgrims to statues of the beloved Chairman. Like for many things in China, capitalism and technology have come together to supercharge consumers’ ability to pledge their support to their modern icons.
Fans will watch every film and stream every song with their idol in it. It is not unusual for them to purchase many – sometimes all – of the products they endorse. Loyal followers will spend hundreds of hours creating, commenting and liking posts and defending their actions on social media. Some make the commitment to organise digital fan clubs.
Fans can become more extreme in their admiration and have been known to rally other devotees to draw attention to their heroes, be it advertising on subway trains, renting large LED screens in urban spaces, performing aerial antics over a city using a helicopter or other aircraft, and organizing VIP luxury cruises. Back in November 2016, a keen group of fans celebrated the 16th birthday of TF Boys star Jackson Yee, purchasing a video advertisement in New York’s Times Square, and flying a cake-shaped hot air balloon in NY and another over the River Thames in London.
Although Chinese consumers are slower adopters of giving to charity and are more likely to go out of their way to get a deal than the average western consumer, their free-spending on idols is unrivalled. In what has become a mainstream mania, consumers shower their icons with tips to demonstrate their fidelity. Many livestreamers make more from tips than sales commissions.
This devotion is one of the drivers for why China’s celebrity and KOL culture remains such a powerful way to build awareness and credibility for brands and products – although many of the metrics shouldn’t be taken at face value. As more consumers have smaller family networks to seek advice and opinions from, the pulling power of influencers is likely to only increase … although the trajectory of China’s obsessive fan economy will take a hit due to it being Beijing’s next target for a crackdown.
Back in May, during a state-run campaign to eliminate food waste, young idol fans were admonished for dumping large volumes of milk into sewers, as the result of a Mengniu dairy marketing promotion that encouraged consumers to scan QR codes inside bottle caps to earn more votes for their idols on a reality TV show. The show was suspended. The following month, Beijing launched an operation targeting the country’s “chaotic” online celebrity fanclubs, accusing them of contributing to a culture of abuse and of manipulating public opinion. And this week’s formal rape charge for one of China’s most influential celebrities, Kris Wu, has provided further fuel to temper China’s fan economy.
The Cyberspace Administration of China has been working for months to weed out opinion manipulation caused by online fan circles. 150,000 pieces of harmful content online have been removed and more than 4,000 accounts related to fan clubs have been punished.
For many brands who have signed up Chinese celebrities as brand ambassadors, there could be a rude shock. Fan clubs are much less likely to cheat the rankings of their idols on charts, and spread rumours, meaning the true popularity of your ‘stars’ may be a lot less than what you thought you were paying for. The new regulations and disapproval from Beijing are also likely to soften the ‘buzz’ that has helped fuel even the most wholesome of endorsers. Something to keep in mind.
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