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China’s latest crackdown on celebrity culture – what does it actually mean for brands?


The recent events in China around celebrities such as actress Zhao Wei, whose public footprint has been ‘erased’ completely, followed by the announcement on banning of ‘sissy boys’ from the entertainment industry raises questions around how brands should tread the celebrity and entertainment culture space, as it remains a huge driver for their image.

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Taking a look at the last few years, celebrity engagements always came with risk. There have been numerous public ‘reckonings’ of celebrities, such as Fan Bing Bing’s disappearance for many months in 2019 due to supposed tax evasion. And more recently, Kris Wu’s alleged sexual assault and Zheng Shuang’s surrogacy controversy as well as tax scandal.

Celebrity and scandal do often go together, so this is not news. And one could say that these incidents are part of the growing pains of a market that has developed at such a fast pace. However today the logic for cracking down on celebrities is part of a larger effort to control content output and thus influence, including the internet and the players in that space. There is concern that the sky-high earnings of these celebrities, not always legitimate, with most in the industry aware of the ‘two payment practice’ when signing with celebrities, has created a wide income gap in today’s Chinese society. The fact is that Chinese celebrities can command up to 10X more than Western celebrities for certain brand engagements.

As for the ‘sissy boy’ ban, it will be interesting to see how such a subjective matter will be interpreted. And what the impact will be on brands who are developing more and more androgynous and unisex product lines, where men wear skirts or sport diamond encrusted jewellery. What defines a ‘sissy boy’?

There was a crackdown on luxury goods in the early 2010s, specifically targeting luxury watches, that was aimed at addressing corruption, however today the social inequalities run too deep with China. So how are luxury brands supposed to adapt their messaging and products, as well as choice of celebrity, to inspire consumers on messages other than exclusivity, status and bling, which we know are still key drivers of luxury goods purchases in China.

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The implications are numerous.

For Western brands: More restrictions on the use of celebrities will be brought in. It would be wise to begin to reduce one’s exposure through the celebrity channel slowly and carefully right away; by carrying out due diligence on the celebrities engaged, constantly monitoring their fan base, and certainly dwindling down the number of celebrities engaged. Time to find new ways to appeal to Chinese consumers. The image and messages around exclusivity much used by luxury players must be tweaked. Being exclusive does not work with the push towards social equality.

For Domestic brands: There is a concerted effort to push for the spotlight to now shine on home grown brands, to champion local Chinese talent and culture, all towards the purpose of creating social good. This combined with growing nationalism, playing into Chinese pride, and the grandeur of it – perhaps it is time to invest in Chinese brands!


By Jane Fondini

Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed in the article belong solely to the original author and do not represent the views, opinions and position of Retail in Asia.