Sponsors have to be willing to take risks, since very often TV
hosts are simultaneously plugging their product and poking fun at
the conventions of advertising and sponsorships. "The way hosts are
talking about brands is humorous, kind of self-mocking," said Ellen
Hou, CEO of Carat China, which has worked on sponsorships
from noodle giant Kang Shifu and Dutch dairy company
FrieslandCampina. "Consumers get it. Brands are tolerant with that.
They feel it's very cool to be a bit self-mocking."
Last year, a show on internet giant Tencent's video platform, "A
Date With a Superstar," flashed messages across the screen about
how fantastic L'Oréal is, calling it "an international
brand, a big brand, a big big brand." On a silly skit in "U Can U
Bibi," someone plugged Head & Shoulders use as
a way to find true love. That show, a pioneer of quirky sponsorship
techniques that's now in its fourth season, got over 56 million
views for its first episode this season.
The price of free content
Chinese internet users grew accustomed to very visible brand
placements because that was the trade-off for free content. China's
online video sites grew up quite differently than say, Netflix,
which has a subscription model and not much obvious product
placement in its original shows.
When video platforms iQiyi, Tencent video and Youku-Tudou were
starting out, piracy was rampant in China, and they needed free
content to lure consumers away from fake DVDs. Sponsorships -- a
staple of all forms of TV in China -- became one facet of their
business model, and they've blown up into big business. Being the
main sponsor of an online show can cost up to $15 million, Carat
says. A show will typically have five to seven sponsors of varying
levels and price tags.
Lately China's video platforms are wooing viewers to upgrade to
subscriber status. Tencent video and iQiyi, which is owned by
Chinese search giant Baidu, last year said they each have over 20
million paying subscribers, while Alibaba Group's Youku-Tudou said
it has 30 million. A central incentive to subscribe is that
pre-roll and mid-roll ads are stripped away.
But the crazy product placements remain—they're part of
Deng Jingyao, a 22-year-old student in public administration in
Shanghai, subscribes to iQiyi for a few dollars a month because she
hates sitting through pre-roll ads. She isn't bothered that her
favorite shows teem with brand placements, "as long as they're
inserted into an interesting topic, or done in a funny way."
Video by Chen Wu