The Dark Side of China’s Idol Economies

Chinese pop idol Xiao Zhan was embroiled in a controversy over the weekend that rocked Gen Zers all across China’s internet. A cyberwar against Xiao fans eventually led to a boycott against brands the idol campaigns for, including Estée Lauder, Piaget, and Cartier. While China’s idol economy remains a lucrative territory for international brands, this incident has revealed its dark side, and an intensified culture of cyberviolence, irrational fandom, and digital censorship are all risk factors that brands now have to face in this increasingly volatile market.

On February 24th, a Weibo user published two article links to a piece of fan fiction titled Falling, which depicts the male idol Xiao Zhan as a cross-dressing teen falling in love with another well-known idol named Wang Yibo. Xiao’s fans were unhappy about having their favorite idol’s identity used in homoerotic literature and viewed it as “tarnishing Xiao’s image.” Many fans then decided to report the fictional content to Chinese authorities as “underage pornography,” hoping it would get it censored.

Two days later, the fiction’s publishing platforms — the Chinese fan fiction site Lofter and the international open-source platform Archive of Our Own — were taken down by Chinese cyberspace police, a move that was met with angry protests. Archive of Our Own (also known as A03) is the go-to destination for China’s ACGN (Animation, Comic, Game, and Novel) subculture fans, with an estimated size of around 300 million readers by the end of 2016. The site was important to China’s LGBTQ communities but was also considered a sanctuary for any kind of alternative publishing that would otherwise be censored by China’s increasingly restricted media environment.

Things escalated quickly after A03’s takedown. Enraged by Xiao fans’ censorship plot, millions of free speech activists began boycotting Xiao Zhan and the dozens of brands he campaigns for, including Estée Lauder, Piaget, and Qeelin. But they’ve gone further than the usual boycott by promoting competitors of Xiao-promoted brands, crashing Xiao-sponsored brands’ customer service lines, and pressuring those brands to end their collaborations with Xiao. So far, the Weibo hashtag #BoycottXiaoZhan# has exceeded 3450,000 posts and 260 million views.

Xiao

Hashtags of #boycottXiaoZhan# trending on Weibo. Photo: Weibo screenshot

Though Xiao’s PR team apologized on Weibo and urged fans to “be more rational,” the damage has been done. The idol’s public image has gone from pop-culture sweetheart to “low-brow” celebrity with crazed fans in a matter of days.

As of today, Estée Lauder and Piaget’s Weibo profiles have been invaded with thousands of comments like “change the idol, or we boycott you.” And though no brand has taken the step of terminating their collaboration with Xiao yet, brands like Olay and Crest have taken product campaigns that use the idol’s image completely off their e-commerce sites.

Prior to this incident, China’s idol economies were known as a key growth engine that drives big spending on luxury brands. A collaboration with idol Kris Wu reportedly contributed 20-percent growth to Burberry’s second-quarter performance in 2016. And over last year’s 11.11 shopping fest, Estée Lauder sold out $1.22 million (8.52 million RMB) worth of Xiao Zhan-themed products on its Tmall store in only one hour.

Like most modern-day idols, Chinese idols have hardcore fan bases with highly organized operating systems in place. But unlike Western fans who look up to idols, fans communities in China see themselves as “mother figures” who nurture their idols and their careers. This desire to nurture led Chinese fans to have unusually frank attitudes about their idol’s commercial collaborations. They see themselves as accountable contributors by pledging loyalty and actively buying or promoting their idol’s promoted products. This helps measurably boost their idol’s commercial ranking. For example, a common way to earn respect in a Chinese fan community is to buy an idol’s advertised product, take a screenshot of the purchase, mark it with your username, and upload it to social media while tagging the brand.

Idol

Xiao Zhan fans showed purchase screenshots of Piaget accessories to show support for the idol. Photo: Weibo

But the idol economy has a sinister side. In the Chinese model of idol adoration, fans are the ones in control of the idol’s reputation and commercial worth — not the idol. And since fan communities are so actively involved in their idol’s brand sponsorships, it also falls on them to attack brands that they perceive to be opposing their idol’s interests.

In Xiao Zhan’s case, neither the idol nor the brands have done anything wrong, but things went off the rails because of poor fan behavior. “Xiao Zhan’s fans have harassed others so violently online that they managed to kill a source of creativity and expression for massive numbers of people,” said a Beijing-based PR professional who asked to be anonymous. “This is an example of modern-day toxic fandom in China.”

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But could brands have done better due diligence before collaborating with an idol to avoid issues such as these? And how can they intelligently and quickly react to a crisis like this? Another PR professional, who is from a Shanghai-based celebrity agency, told Jing Daily that the current scandal is a wakeup call for brands that have become overly reliant on idols in China. “When a brand’s growth relies on a pop idol’s fanbase rather than its core branding and products, you know this is unhealthy,” she said. “The fan economy only creates temporary buzz, but the harm it generates will last a long time.” And now, after a growing number of fan-generated crises, she also warned that companies should be cautious with indemnity agreements during the contract-signing process.

A risk-dispersion strategy of not putting ‘all eggs in one basket’ would also work. “In recent years, many brands have learned to do short-term collaborations with multiple celebrities to disperse risk,” said Jerry Liu, a marketing strategist for a French cosmetic brand’s Shanghai branch. “But this strategy doesn’t work when the scandal becomes out-of-control, as the public doesn’t care if the idol has a proper contract with the brand. Once you work with someone, their image is your image.”

As an ancient Chinese saying goes: Water that bears the boat is the same that swallows it up. When fans go mad, the idol pays the price. But for brands, that price might be even higher.

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