SHANGHAI--China's media censors have ordered television stations and print media to cease running ads featuring Tang Wei, star of Ang Lee's sexually explicit movie "Lust, Caution."
The decision could derail a major campaign by Ogilvy & Mather for Pond's, one of Unilever's biggest brands in China. The company recently selected Ms. Tang as the face of Pond's in the mainland, a major skincare market, as part of an effort to lift Pond's into the mid- to high-end skincare market that began last month. Ms. Tang's celebrity endorsement deal with Unilever is reportedly worth $845,000.
However, it's unclear if the ban will be enforced, since Unilever told Advertising Age that the ad had already been approved by government regulators.
The government's objections stem from the steamier parts of "Lust, Caution," which has full frontal nudity and some violent and explicit sex scenes. There is a likely political aspect as well. In the film, Ms. Tang plays a student activist who seduces a Japanese spy during Japan's occupation of Shanghai in World War II and ultimately betrays her country. China and Japan share a difficult, often violent past and tensions still simmer today.
"Lust, Caution" was heavily censored when it appeared in Chinese cinemas last year, although the uncut version was well-received by critics and audiences in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and many Chinese have seen the original version on pirated DVDs.
In a statement released March 7, Chinese regulators objected to any film that "disrupts social order" and vowed to censor films that promote "pornographic and lewd content, showing promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual immorality and perversion" and other "wanton values."
The statement, issued by China's State Adminstration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), did not mention "Lust, Caution" or Ms. Tang by name. But separately, in a letter to station owners and print titles, SARFT warned media owners not to run ads featuring the actress. SARFT also instructed awards shows in China to exclude Ms. Tang and the film's producers from their guest lists.
Unilever has already introduced print ads and a TV spot in China featuring the starlet, but the campaign will have to be scrapped if the SARFT ruling is enforced. The TV spot shows the actress using Pond's as she gets dressed and made up on a 1930s movie set, the same era as the "Lust, Caution" film. (It can be viewed on youtube.com.)
The Chinese ads are a localized component of a regional relaunch of the brand taking place across Asia and orchestrated by the company's regional headquarters for Pond's in Bangkok. Unilever hopes to make Pond's a more upscale brand in Asia.
In a statement given to Advertising Age by Unilever in China, the company said, "The advertising itself was produced and distributed in accordance with Chinese rules and regulations. Government approval was received before distribution and airing. We have not received any official notice for the ban and we are currently trying to ascertain what lies at the root of the issue. The Pond's contract with Tang Wei remains intact."
The agencies handling Pond's creative and media in China, Ogilvy & Mather and MindShare, respectively declined to comment.
But Oscar-winning director Ang Lee has spoken out in support of Ms. Tang. "I am very regretful that Tang Wei has been hurt by this decision," said Mr. Lee in a statement published by Beijing News. "She gave a great performance in this properly produced and distributed film. I will do everything I can to support her in this difficult time."