Inside Tencent and L'Oreal's Zany Branded Content Experiment in China

First Few Episodes Got 180 Million Views in Three Weeks

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We get it already: Buy L'Oreal.
We get it already: Buy L'Oreal. Credit: Tencent Video.
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A lot of branded entertainment content tries to hide its intent. The product placements are subtle, the marketing messages are sneaky. But Chinese online giant Tencent is trying something different to appeal to millennials: being completely up-front and in-your-face.

Take a look at the photo above; it's a scene from Tencent's new online entertainment show, "A Date With a Superstar." How many L'Oreal products or logos do you see? (Thirty or so, by this reporter's count.)

The show features celebrities helping ordinary people solve problems in their daily lives. And its reach is amplified on social media and popular live-streaming platforms. The program, whose main sponsor is L'Oreal, is essentially a giant commercial, yet it's also poking fun at the conventions of advertising and product placement.

L'Oreal logos pop onto the screen, jiggle, twirl, vanish and reappear. Images of shampoo and conditioner randomly rain down from the top of the screen. As the episode opens, a booming voice announces that the show can solve all your problems, but it can't solve what's wrong with your hair. Only L'Oreal can do that.

"A Date With a Superstar" is one example of how marketers are working to surprise and amuse brand-savvy young consumers in the world's biggest internet market, with 688 million people online. China's young consumers are possibly the world's most sought-after demographic, and they're bombarded with messages from Western and local brands, so it can be hard to stand out.

"A Date With a Superstar" seems to have hit the right note. The first few episodes had 180 million total views in about three weeks.

Sophia Ong, Tencent's national planning GM, cited research showing that millennials are fully aware when content is branded.

"In the past, advertisers and marketers tried to hide the message in the program, in the content, because we were afraid it would probably be intrusive, but actually we found out, if we do it in the right way, viewers are with you," Ms. Ong said. Her conclusion: "Don't try to hide."

Media agency GroupM worked on the project, and L'Oreal chose Tencent as the content partner, after an evaluation process, Ms. Ong said. A Chinese car brand, Chery's Arrizo, is another sponsor. The celebs drive around in one, and the cursor to rewind or fast-forward looks like a little blue car.

The show's premise is that a few celebrities gather together in an historic home in Beijing to pore over requests for help sent in via social media. In the first episode, which lasts 53 minutes, one woman asked for help getting a work promotion; another wanted suggestions on what her child should wear. (Formula brand Enfagrow by Mead Johnson appears often in that segment.) A third request was for a martial arts lesson. One guy just wanted to help his girlfriend get a seat on the crowded subway on her way to work.

Ye Gu, a 23-year-old from China studying at Arizona State University, loves the concept: "Celebrities are taking their time to help normal people make their wishes come true. It's surprising -- because they're superstars, we think they wouldn't want to help people like us." She doesn't mind the product placements, since she figures a show with big name guests is expensive to make.

Here's what the show looks like in 'bullet screen' format.
Here's what the show looks like in 'bullet screen' format. Credit: Tencent

Live-streaming is big in China right now, and Tencent also used its own live-streaming platform and others, including Huajiao, to amplify the show's reach. Viewers can watch celebrities watching the show -- it's all very, very meta.

In another twist, viewers are encouraged to tag the show with comments and emojis; those comments get affixed to the scene permanently, so anyone watching in the future will see them. That's called a "bullet screen," because all the comments seem to fly by like a hail of bullets, and it's a popular phenomenon that marketers have been experimenting with in China. Ms. Ong cites research suggesting 47% of Chinese users either like or accept bullet screens; those who don't can turn that feature off.

Bullet screens also influenced content in the show itself. At one point, a message pops up reading: "Notice: It's time for some ads. Please decide to watch." Amusingly blunt brand messages start flying across the screen. One says L'Oreal is an "international brand, a big brand, a big big brand."