This week, China's media regulator censored an internet star who makes satirical video commentaries, ordering her to cut the swear words out of her monologues. Interestingly, the buzz around that crackdown seems to have boosted interest from advertisers.
The star, nicknamed Papi Jiang, just hosted an auction to sell off a video ad slot and associated social promotions around it. The winning $3.4 million bid was from Lily & Beauty, a new cosmetics e-commerce platform that has investment from Alibaba Group, according to state media reports.
Papi Jiang reportedly plans to donate the money to the school where she is a grad student, the Beijing Central Academy of Drama -- a move that should generate goodwill among fans.
This is the first time the star has worked with brands. But since she has raised about $1.9 million from investors betting on her ability to make money, it apparently won't be the last.
Papi Jiang has amassed 11.8 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, for her fast-paced, humorous rants about ordinary life. The production value is low, and the videos appear to be filmed in a cluttered dorm room or small apartment, but their authenticity strikes a chord.
Early this week the videos were pulled off Youku, a video platform. State media said regulators objected to Papi Jiang's swearing and demanded that she edit out obscenities before reposting them. Papi Jiang quickly apologized and promised to "pay attention to her words and image."
The hullabaloo, widely covered in the media and discussed online, raised her profile even more and apparently generated buzz for the auction, media execs said.
For an ambitious new advertiser wanting to make a statement, the auction buy was an interesting move, said Vineet Arora, MD of Havas Media Group for China.
"They will not need to spend anything on traditional paid media for a long time, or at least for their launch -- the PR they will get for it will be of high value anyway," he said. The e-commerce company should make sure it's ready for heightened interest by making sure the rest of its assets – its online presence, for example – resonate with its message, he said. The risk is that it could seem like a gimmick.
Papi Jiang's auction tactic is a first for a local video star but common for media players – China's state-run TV network, CCTV, holds a high-profile auction every year for prime ad slots.
The big pricetag shows how much competition there is in China among advertisers looking to attach themselves to interesting, youthful content. And it's indicative of trends about where advertisers are spending money. GroupM says CCTV ad sales contracted by 2% last year. Meanwhile, online video advertising has had fast growth, soaring 53% in 2015, according to iResearch.
Another interesting takeaway is that local brands led the bidding, an example of how they have become bolder than multinationals, said HaiDong Guan, executive planning director for Grey Group China. He sees that as one reason local brands are rising; fast-moving consumer goods from local companies gained share over foreign ones in 18 out of 26 categories in 2014, according to a study from Bain & Co. and Kantar Worldpanel.
"Generally speaking Western brands are more conservative," he said. "Chinese brands have a more entrepreneurial spirit in everything, not just in marketing, but also sales channels and new product launches."