In China, Will Male Celebs Stop Endorsing Sanitary Pads?
In China, a male pop star has faced blunt questions about an endorsement deal: Why exactly is he promoting sanitary napkins, a product he presumably has never used himself?
When the government recently announced plans to require celebrities to personally try the products they promote, Taiwanese singer Jiro Wang's deal with the local Freemore feminine hygiene line resurfaced to become the butt of jokes online. (Mr. Wang said he endorsed the products because he has family members who use them, according to local news reports.)
In China, celebrity endorsements are ubiquitous and sometimes awkward. In another recent case that was mocked, an actor plugged a technical school he didn't attend, where people train to use heavy construction equipment.
As new brands and products flood the market to target China's growing middle class, marketers tend to see celebs as an effective, relatively easy way to build trust and a connection with consumers.
In the case of Mr. Wang, an actor and member of boy band Fahrenheit, there was also his undeniable appeal to teenage girls. His pitch is that Freemore's pads will set women free (to illustrate what it's like to be a woman having her period, dancers move like robots in the background of a commercial from last year).
New risks for pitchmen
Jokes aside, there's a very serious side to the issue. A draft revision of a law submitted to the People's National Congress late last month says celebrities who tout products they haven't used themselves will bear legal responsibility.
If celebs knowingly promote a bad product, their endorsement income will be taken away and they will be fined up to two times that sum, state-owned China Daily reported. And endorsers can bear joint legal responsibility with the manufacturer for any issues, it said.
Some endorsements have stirred up feelings of betrayed trust for consumers. Actresses Gong Li and Fan Bingbing endorsed a diet pill, Qumei, found to contain a chemical that can increase the risk of heart disease.
And Deng Jie, an actress from a once-popular TV series, swore to mothers across China that Sanlu milk powder was trustworthy. Sanlu was the budget brand at the heart of the 2008 tainted milk scandal, when 300,000 children fell ill and at least 6 died.
James Feldkamp, co-founder of MingJian, an independent China-based product-testing watchdog inspired by Consumer Reports, says the regulation on endorsements is "very much in the right direction, so consumers are not misled by a celebrity promoting a product that can have some serious issues," he said.
China has already made progress on consumer protection this year, he noted. In March, it regulated consumer data collection and gave e-commerce shoppers new rights, such as the ability to return anything, unconditionally, within a week.
Marina Leung, managing director and chief branding officer for Cohn & Wolfe in greater China, also applauded the proposed amendments on celebrities, recalling the Sanlu milk powder case.
But Ms. Leung questions how celebs will actually be held liable. "When the celebrity takes on a project, to what extent does he or she have to fulfill the responsibility of checking (the product claims) are really true?" she said.
And celebs are not medical experts: "How is a person able to understand the long-term effects or chemicals in certain pills?" she asked.
Ms. Leung thinks stars might be more cautious from now on, but that money from endorsement deals will remain a powerful draw.
How much did Mr. Wang, the sanitary napkin pitchman, earn for his two-year deal? According to China Daily, $335,000.