When luxury brands choose celebrities for promotion and marketing, they aren’t normally making a political decision—unless they’re in China, that is.
The Chinese government’s rumored crackdown on Korean pop culture, or K-pop, over a diplomatic dispute with South Korea is one of several recent signs that brands employing celebrity ambassadors may not have a choice in getting dragged into political issues in the China market.
After China’s government stepped up pressure to oppose South Korea’s July 8 decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Areas Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, rumors have been flying that K-pop has come under siege.
The state-run Global Times reports that a reality show on Jiangsu Television has cut shots and blurred the images of several K-pop stars including Psy and iKON. Local Guangdong TV stations told media they had received orders not to air TV shows featuring Korean stars, and a reportedly leaked official list of banned stars and shows showed up on Chinese media outlet Sina. Meanwhile, Korean companies told Variety that their Chinese partners said future co-productions wouldn’t be approved.
While the government hasn’t confirmed or denied the ban, the Global Times ominously wrote in a recent op-ed, “As THAAD has put China under enormous pressure, young Chinese people won't be in the mood to enjoy the Korean Wave.”
This crackdown has already started to harm endorsement deals with brands and K-pop stars adored in China. For example, Chinese smartphone company Vivo pulled TV commercials featuring Descendants of the Sun actor Song Joong-ki after the controversy, but will bear all the financial cost agreed upon in the contract. The company has not confirmed to media why it’s pulling the ads.
K-pop stars have been especially beneficial to Western luxury brands in the past thanks to Chinese fans’ ardent devotion. In 2014, a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes seen on the hit Korean drama My Love from the Star sold out in China within days of going on air.
As the marketing benefits have become clear, a growing number of top luxury brands including Chanel, Alexander Wang, Swarovksi, Givenchy, Calvin Klein, Moschino, Gucci, and more have worked with K-pop stars by sitting them front-row at fashion shows, placing them in ads, or working with them on special collaborations. At Chanel’s May 2015 resort presentation held in Seoul, front-row guests included actresses Park Shin-hye, Jung Ryeo-won, and Han Ye-seul, actor Lee Jong-suk, and Big Bang band members G-Dragon and Taeyang. Chanel President of Fashion Bruno Pavlovsky specifically said that the K-pop stars “have become incredibly powerful” in China, and noted the benefits of holding a fashion show in Seoul due to the influx of Chinese and Japanese travelers.
The new Chinese K-pop crackdown has already hit luxury directly. After the rumors of the crackdown, shares plummeted for one of Korea's top K-pop management companies YG Entertainment, which received an $80 million investment from LVMH's Asia capital arm in 2014.
Chinese state-run media has become a potent force in dragging brands into political controversies thanks to their celebrity endorsers. Lancôme learned this the hard way this year when it came under heavy criticism for canceling a Hong Kong concert by pop star Denise Ho, who had been criticized in Chinese media for supporting Occupy Central.
These efforts have already begun to work with one group of K-pop stars: ethnic Chinese members of Korean pop groups. Following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favor of the Philippines over China in the recent South China Sea dispute, several Korean pop stars posted images on their social media accounts in support of China. After the ruling, a Chinese member of Korean girl group f(x) called Victoria posted an image of a map of China with the nine-dash line around the South China Sea on Instagram and Weibo stating in Chinese, “China cannot become smaller.” Chinese K-pop celebrities including Fei from Miss A, Zhou Mi from Super Junior-M, Lay from Exo, and Cao Lu from Fiestar also posted the image.
Although Hong Kong and South Korean celebrities generally aren’t facing the same Chinese political control that mainland stars are under, these efforts to start going after non-mainland pop stars may be meant to teach them to keep their mouths shut about political issues if they want to maintain lucrative endorsement opportunities in the future.