How China's Crackdown on Entertainment Content Impacts Brands

Regulators' Latest Targets Include Shows About Celebrity Kids and an Online Video Star

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Actor Liu Ye and his son Nuoyi in 'Dad, Where Are We Going?'
Actor Liu Ye and his son Nuoyi in 'Dad, Where Are We Going?' Credit: China HunanTV Official Channel/YouTube

For three years, a popular Chinese reality TV show about celebrity fathers and their kids has drawn massive revenues from sponsorships and advertising. Local dairy giant Yili already committed $77 million to sponsor the next season of "Dad, Where Are We Going?" But censors are cracking down, and the popular show has reportedly been canceled.

China's media regulator just banned reality TV shows featuring celebrity children, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, or SAPPRFT, said the move will keep children out of the spotlight so they can "enjoy the childhoods they are entitled to."

These have been busy times for Chinese censors, who have recently banned TV depictions of gay people, drinking, adultery and even superstitious themes. Also this week, SAPPRFT cracked down on an online megastar nicknamed Papi Jiang, who makes funny, irreverent short videos. The regulator accused her of using bad language and ordered her to fix her videos. The timing was interesting – Papi Jiang is preparing to host a closely watched auction for brands that want to collaborate with her.

Shifting lines

For agencies and marketers, the two events this week are reminders of how regulations in China are constantly shifting. It's not always clear where the line is, and content or celebrities that seem safe can suddenly become a target.

One well-known example came in 2008. Tang Wei, a star of Ang Lee's sexually explicit "Lust, Caution," appeared in a campaign for Unilever's Pond's brand. Though the campaign had been approved by authorities, regulators suddenly demanded that all print and TV ads starring Ms. Tang be withdrawn. There was no explanation, just an assumption the Chinese actress was punished for appearing in a racy movie.

"Dad, Where Are We Going?" meanwhile, is a family-friendly show that has been hugely popular for three seasons on Hunan TV, a popular satellite channel. It sparked feature film spinoffs and a host of similar shows before rumblings earlier this year that it was in trouble.

The program, a remake of a South Korean show, featured famous fathers taking their kids to rough it in the countryside and face challenges together. It attracted a total of $232 million in sponsorship and media buys for the third season, and about the same for a fourth season that hasn't aired, according to Carat.

Yili's sponsorship has been successful in making consumers remember its link with the show, with episodes shot at the brand's farms and stars milking cows, as pointed out in a post by market researcher CTR. Yili committed $77 million to attach its name to the fourth season, after paying $47 million for the third, CTR said.

China's Xinhua news agency said the show has been canceled; a Hunan TV employee reached by phone said she wasn't informed of future plans. Yili did not return an email seeking comment.

Nissan Motors' Infiniti was another brand associated with earlier seasons of the show, with participants riding in its sports utility vehicle. Executives had said they wanted to tap into the show's emotional resonance and popularity in social discussions.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities apparently became disturbed by commercial deals associated with the program. Several of its young stars won endorsement contracts for milk or education brands. And when China put a new advertising law into effect in September, it banned children under age 10 from endorsing products.

Ad dollars and venture capital

The other crackdown of the week hit online star Papi Jiang, who has 11 million followers on microblogging platform Weibo. She makes funny, low-tech videos where she speaks in a speeded-up voice about problems of everyday life. One typical post satirizes what it's like for young adults going home for Chinese New Year, with relatives asking nosy questions and nagging (as in, "what's your salary?" and "if you don't have babies now it will be too late.")

She recently raised $1.9 million in venture capital from investors confident about her prospects to attract revenues in a country where brands are keen to attach themselves to young, edgy content (to the detriment of state-run China Central Television, whose ad revenues dropped 2% last year, according to GroupM.) The industry will be watching her April 21 auction to see if advertisers were scared away by SAPPRFT targeting her.

In a written message to fans on social app WeChat, Papi Jiang stiffly promised to be more cautious: "Only when I accept criticism and rectify my mistakes can I make better progress."

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