Fandoms—and the idols they support—are big businesses in China. A recent report put the value of the fan economy at close to $620 billion. This helps to explain why international brands, particularly those targeting younger generations, have been keen to recruit high profile idols as brand ambassadors.
Unfortunately, this marketing strategy is no longer as straightforward as it once was. Adding to a number of existing Chinese advertising regulations, the Chinese government recently announced new regulations on idols and fandoms.
Here we explore exactly what China’s online regulations entail, why they came about and what they mean for international brands.
A quick introduction to idols and fandoms
Idols are celebrities — famous within the entertainment industry or simply as a result of their prominent social media profile. They are influencers with large and extremely loyal social media followings.
Typically they have monetized this following by partnering with brands and promoting their products through digital content and in-person appearances.
A fandom is a highly organized group of fans willing to spend their time and money boosting their idol’s popularity. Fans will like, comment, and share social media posts — as well as buy products promoted by their idol.
Research shows that 36% of fans are willing to spend between $15 and $75 each month, simply to support their idol.
Chinese fan culture
Fan culture in China is much more organized than you might have realized. Fan devotion has been fuelled in part by digital platforms and social media sites that publish idol popularity lists. This incentivized fans to boost the profile of their favorite idols.
Fandoms also have their own complex organizational structures. Fandom administrators orchestrate fans across different social networks to support their idols in the most effective ways.
The new idol and fandom regulations in China
The Eight-Point Plan
In September 2021, the Chinese government announced a number of new regulations for the Chinese entertainment industry — including the internet. Here’s an overview of rules included in the Eight-Point Plan:
- Entertainment platforms cannot host entertainers or guests who “don’t have the right political stance” or “go against public order and morals”.
- Idol selection and talent shows are banned.
- The promotion of traditional culture and a “correct beauty standard” is encouraged. People should boycott negative influences such as entertainment gossip, “sissy idols”, “crude online stars” and idols and celebrities who flaunt their wealth.
- Celebrity salaries will be regulated to prevent excessively high rates of pay. Fake contracts and tax evasion will be severely punished.
- Entertainment professionals will undergo moral training and the entertainment industry is responsible for calling out rule breakers within its ranks.
Other online regulations
In addition to the Eight-Point Plan, regulators have announced other changes.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) now prohibits platforms from publishing online lists of Chinese celebrities and idols, based upon their popularity. This is a bid to prevent fans from spending money to rig the rankings.
Online platforms are not to encourage fans to spend money in support of their idols. And minors are forbidden from joining fan clubs, participating in fan gatherings or spending money on celebrity merchandise.
The CAC has already removed more than 150,000 examples of “harmful online content” and deleted a number of idol accounts.
Why were these China online regulations implemented?
By announcing these new idol regulations, the Chinese government has made its disapproval of China’s fan culture very clear. As fans usually belong to younger age-groups, the government says that so-called “toxic idol worship” is poisoning the minds of future generations in a number of different ways.
The “bad” influence of some idols
An online world of super-rich lifestyles and “sissy men” has been targeted by the Chinese Communist Party. Idols who flaunt their wealth along with male idols who fail to conform to the country’s traditional masculine ideal are no longer viewed as acceptable influences on young fans.
The government is encouraging both internet and entertainment companies to “vigorously promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture.”
Problems caused by obsessive fans
It’s not just about offering support for your favorite idol. Some fans are also prepared to game the system and tarnish the reputation of their idol’s competitors.
Stalking, doxing, cyberbullying and spreading rumors are some of the problem behaviors mentioned by the Chinese government. Some fans also use bots to artificially increase traffic for their idols. These are some of the reasons given for the introduction of China’s online regulations on fan culture.
Let’s take a look at an often cited example.
In 2020, a fan group for actor Xiao Zhan reported a fanfiction website to the authorities. They were upset that the website had published a story in which Xiao Zhan fell in love with another male idol.
When the fanfiction website was subsequently banned from China for its homoerotic content, fans of the site turned against Xiao Zhan. They boycotted the brands he promoted and a social media war was born, with images and addresses of individuals posted online for abuse.
Irrational buying behavior
The “milk waste” scandal started when a popular reality talent show – Youth With You – ran a publicity campaign. They had placed QR codes inside milk bottle tops. By scanning these QR codes, fans of the show could support their favorite stars of the show.
But the marketing campaign backfired. People bought bottles of milk to get the QR code and simply poured the contents down the drain. Videos of this wasteful behavior went viral and an intense online backlash followed.
In just the past few months there have been a number of high-profile idol scandals. This is another of the reasons given to explain China’s online regulations on celebrities.
Taiwanese-American singer and idol Wang Leehom and his wife, Lee Jinglei (who both enjoy large followings in China) announced they were filing for divorce in December 2021. A few days later, Leehom’s soon-to-be ex-wife used a social media post to accuse him of infidelity, paying for sex, and emotional abuse.
A social media war of words—between fans of both parties—ensued, and Leehom was dropped by most of the brands he worked with.
Despite Leehom’s apology to his fans for failing to be the idol (and husband) he should have been, the Chinese Communist Party chose to get involved. A government-owned newspaper denounced Leehom for ignoring moral and legal boundaries. It claimed that diehard fans try to justify the actions of their idols, so idols like Leehom were leading young fans astray.
In July 2021, Chinese Canadian rapper and former boy band member Kris Wu was arrested on suspicion of rape. Wu is one of China’s biggest celebrities with a huge online following. He worked with brands including Louis Vuitton, L’Oréal, and Bulgari before multiple women accused him of luring them into having sex when they were underage.
Despite his arrest, many amongst Wu’s fandom remained loyal. They blamed the victims, gathered at the police station to sing in his support and even suggested they might try to break him out of prison. Tencent and Weibo shut down a number of fan groups in response.
“Livestreaming queen” Viya and Chinese actress Fan Bingbing
Huang Wei, known as Viya is an internet celebrity with tens of millions of followers in China. She is known as the “live-streaming queen”, using her influence to sell pretty much anything. In late December, 2021, Visa has been handed a 1.34bn RMB ($210m) fine for tax evasion.
Fan Bingbing is one of China’s highest paid actresses. She’s starred in the X-Men and Iron Man movie franchises. Back in 2018, Fan and her related companies were ordered to pay about 883m RMB ($129m) in fines.
The Chinese government has found both of these celebrities guilty of tax evasion and has issued fines of $210m and $129m, respectively. The Chinese people largely turned against both Viya and Fan Bingbing. Viya has disappeared from public view and social media sites deleted her profiles. And Fan has been trying to regain popularity.
What international brands need to consider going forward
Whether you interpret China’s regulations on idols and fandoms as the Communist Party’s attempt to protect the country’s youth or strengthen online censorship, international brands simply have to sit up and take note.
Brands need to find a new path — one that accommodates China’s regulations on idols and online behaviour whilst still engaging and satisfying consumers. Here are a few things to consider before launching your next digital marketing campaign in China.
The need to err on the side of caution
Some of the terminologies in the rules on fandoms and idols are a little fuzzy. What exactly is meant by the government’s term “sissy men” and how lavish does a lifestyle need to be before it’s deemed unacceptable?
This lack of clarity makes things difficult for brands who want to stay on the right side of the law. As we wait to see how these rules are applied in practice, it’s better to err on the side of caution than see your Chinese marketing efforts and social accounts erased.
China’s online ecosystem will be watching
The biggest social media and ecommerce platforms in China have all pledged their allegiance to the new rules and regulations.
Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu and Tencent Video are amongst the big names who have all issued a joint declaration promising to promote a healthy online culture and reduce their reliance on algorithmic content promotion.
These sites are already looking for and flagging content that doesn’t abide by the regulations.
Working with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) has become complicated—but not impossible
Idols (or KOLs) are built into Chinese ecommerce. Customers will always look to KOLs when making purchasing decisions. But working with KOLs is now much more complicated than it once was.
Brands have to find KOLs who can promote their products without displaying wealth or “unacceptable” versions of male and female beauty. Remember that it’s pretty much impossible to fool the censors.
In a bid to avoid controversy and carefully manage KOL content, some brands are working with smaller scale influencers—Key Opinion Consumers (KOCs). These guys are just regular people trying out a new product and don’t pose the same level of reputational risk to brands.
Others are going even further in their bid to keep control of their content. They’re turning to virtual idols—AI characters animated to look like real humans. These characters engage consumers—but they’re a lot less likely to end up embroiled in a scandal or responsible for dubious content.
There are lots of effective Chinese marketing strategies—that don’t involve idols
Whilst the crackdown on online activity in China can feel like yet another barrier for international brands looking to break into the market, it’s worth remembering that there are lots of alternative ways to reach out to a Chinese audience.
Utilizing the many different marketing and ecommerce tools available to brands on platforms like WeChat and Douyin, creating interactive content in-house, and building demand with exclusive product offers are all great ways to engage your audience, without the help of an idol.
Want some help navigating China’s online regulations?
When you’re launching a Chinese marketing campaign, there are a lot of regulations to get your head around. That’s before new rules on idols and fandoms were added into the mix. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the process.
But the rewards of a successful campaign are too huge to be ignored. China is a huge market with a growing middle class. To reach this market effectively and stay on the right side of Chinese advertising regulations, you need a local marketing partner.
Here at AdChina, we’re experts in Chinese digital marketing. We understand the KOL landscape as it currently stands. We know government regulations inside out. And we have tons of experience helping international brands find the right digital channels and the right content for their target market in China.
Whether you need help with account setup, copy translation or ad campaign management, we’re here to do as much or as little of your China advertising as you like.
Book a demo to find out exactly what AdChina.io can do for you and your brand.