9 Million Chinese Teenagers Took an Exam This Week; Brands Had a Lot to Say

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From a McDonald's campaign about the gaokao, China's college entrance test
From a McDonald's campaign about the gaokao, China's college entrance test Credit: McDonald's Weibo

Over 9 million students took China's crucial but notoriously difficult college entrance test, the gaokao, this week. The test dominated discussion on social media, and brands from McDonald's to Mercedes tapped into the conversation too.

For brands tying to reach China's youth, talking about the gaokao is a way to connect, especially if the messages are clever. There are 415 million millennials in China, by Goldman Sachs' count, so the stakes for brands are huge.

The exam, which started Wednesday and wraps up Friday, is a turning point for many people; performance on the test is the only factor deciding who attends college, and where. Only 4 million of the 9.4 million exam-takers this year are expected to enroll at universities, state media said.

"It's the moment that might decide what person you will be, what city you will live in, what career will be in your future," said Frank Zhao, ECD of BBDO Shanghai. In gaokao season, brands wish students luck and provide some comic relief.

McDonald's: BBDO Shanghai did a gaokao campaign for McDonald's that included a breakfast meal, commercials and a quirky mobile element. On a digital device, people could select the year they took (or will take) the exam, then upload selfies onto a virtual gaokao I.D. card bearing their name, gender and exam subjects. The resulting I.D. card has a retro or futuristic look depending on the year you chose, and it includes a good luck message to 2017 test-takers.

Mercedes: Teachers often tell students that if they're stumped on a multiple choice test, they should go with answer "C." Is that scientific? Who knows. But Mercedes had a hit social post when it advised, "When you don't know what answer to choose, choose C." As in Mercedes C-class.

Mobike: There's a fierce battle for users among China's "Uber for bikes"-type services; in many cities, sidewalks are crammed full of parked bikes from competing bike share services. Mobike, one of the biggest ones, offered everybody free service on Wednesday and Thursday, the main testing days.

Coca-Cola: Singer and actor Lu Han is the celebrity endorser of the moment for Coca-Cola, with giant photos of his face and bleached blond mop of hair plastered all over convenience stores. "Lu" means "deer" in Chinese, and some Coke bottles have caps topped with deer antlers. He shot a social message for everyone taking the test, reminding them what materials to take with them and wishing them admittance to the university of their dreams.

Snickers: The singers of the TFBoys, China's most popular boy band, starred in videos by BBDO Beijing that launched a few weeks back; they didn't specifically mention the gaokao, but they came out in prime cramming season. Dressed like cowboys in a Western, the TFBoys rode into town and handed out Snickers to cranky, hungry, overworked students. When one TFBoy, teen idol Karry Wang, took the gaokao this week, it was a big topic of conversation. CNN described the buzz this way: "Picture Justin Bieber taking the SAT and you're halfway there."

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