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Every Lunar New Year, China's singles go back to their hometowns to eat dumplings, light firecrackers and withstand relatives' nagging about why they're not married yet.
An ad from online matchmaker Baihe.com tried to tap into the seasonal angst to win new customers, but it hit too close to home. It sparked a backlash, a boycott call and social media chatter calling the ad sexist and manipulative. Some said the spot made them feel guilty, angry and even ill.
The commercial, airing on television and online, features an elderly woman and her adult granddaughter, along with a soaring string soundtrack. The grandma constantly begs her granddaughter to get married —even on the young woman's college graduation day, and later when the older woman is dying in the hospital.
But wait, there's a happy ending: The young woman suddenly decides she can't waste any more time being "picky." Wearing a wedding dress, with groom tagging along, she turns up at the hospital where her grandmother is breathing oxygen from a tube.
Baihe.com's executives told state media the ad was based on a true story, and that they favor a sentimental style in ads. They also said they hadn't foreseen the backlash. Baihe.com did not respond to requests for more comment, and it was not clear what agency produced the ad.
The commercial was one of the top trending topics on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, this weekend. In a poll, more than 46,000 users said they disliked it, while only 2,100 supported it.
On Weibo, singles told their own tales of failing to live up to parental demands they settle down. One man recounted switching the TV channel to ensure his mom wouldn't see the ad.
While the commercial alienated many singles, it might not have had the same effect on their parents and grandparents. It aired on state television, which reaches all generations, so Baihe.com might be hoping older viewers push their offspring onto the service.
Chinese media is flooded with messages about "leftover women," a cruel term referring to single women, often urban and professionally successful. The ad echoed many state media reports blaming them for being too picky about men, said Leta Hong Fincher, author of the upcoming book "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China."
Baihe.com has been "very active over last few years in promoting all sorts of surveys or campaigns that end up really stigmatizing single urban women -- since obviously, they profit from women and men being really anxious to get married," she said.
The weeks-long Lunar New Year period wraps up Friday, the same day as another anxiety-producing holiday for singles: Valentine's Day.