What China's Live Streaming Crackdown Mean for Marketers

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Livestream video on Chinese livestreaming app Douyu.
Livestream video on Chinese livestreaming app Douyu. Credit: via Douyu

Chinese authorities are cracking down on live streaming platforms and video producers this week in a hunt for content deemed too sexy, violent harmful to youth or even superstutious.

The Culture Ministry there has said that it shut down 10 hosting platforms entirely. Authorities banned 547 live streamers and ordered 30,235 accounts to shut down, part of an ongong clampdown on the live streaming space.

There's big money involved in live streaming in China, with Credit Suisse putting the market at over $3.6 billion last year. Brands have been tapping into it too. Business intelligence firm L2 said that about 80% of beauty brands it tracked had used it last year.

Durex livestreamed a three-hour ad featuring couples in bed last year.
Durex livestreamed a three-hour ad featuring couples in bed last year. Credit: Bilibili

Adidas, Oreo and Durex are among the many brands that have done live streaming in China. Durex's execution was risque: A year ago, it promised a live stream featuring couples in bed. The brand didn't actually show anything sexual, but it may have caught the attention of China's anti-pornography office. Without mentioning Durex by name, the office said on its its microblog that it was concerned about vulgar marketing on webcast platforms and urged internet companies to "resist unhealthy content."

Money flows in unusual ways online in China. Viewers can spend actual money to send a virtual gift like a flower to an online performer. The gifts are converted into cash for the video producer. The hosting platform gets a cut.

Grant Gulovsen, co-founder of Antipodal Talent, a U.S.-based creative and talent management agency that helps Western companies in mainland China, said brands should "watch out for anything that even remotely might be deemed disharmonious." In the Chinese context, he said, 'disharmonious' can mean things that question the Communist Party's authority or embarrasses its leaders. Sexual content is also viewed differently than in some other markets. In China, dancing suggestively or showing too much cleavage can be problematic.

"Anything that suggests sexual activity, including things like eating a banana, for example, can be flagged as pornographic," he wrote in an email. Even eating bananas in a suggestive way was banned, as he noted.

The clampdown also "should remind brands and agencies that unlike in the West, all online activity in China is closely monitored. Whether it happens at the platform level or by someone working for the government, all user activity is monitored," Gulovsen said.

"Finally, this response by regulators underscores the fact that there are still a ridiculous number of platforms out there, so brands must be careful which ones they associate with," he said. "Typically, the larger they are, the safer they are."

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