It was more than ten years ago when talent shows first arrived on TV in China. The new entertainment format was immediately identified by the country’s corporate sector as a perfect vehicle for raising brand awareness and boosting sales.
China’s largest dairy manufacturer, Mengniu, moved fast: in 2004 it paid RMB 40m to become the flagship sponsor of one of the earliest shows, ‘Super Girl’. One study by Sixth Tone found clearly showed the positive revenue impact: Mengniu’s yoghurt drink’s sales leapt from RMB 800m to RMB 2.7bn in 2005.
Since this early success, however, brand sponsorship has evolved in a way that has substantially altered the talent show category it feeds upon. Subtle mentions and product placement have been replaced by entire production sets branded in the sponsor’s visual style or by commercial inserts filmed by a show’s most popular contestants.
Understatement has clearly not been a priority for shows intent on monetizing their popularity. But recent ploys to deliver ever greater ROI for sponsors have become far more controversial.
Waist Challenge/Milk Waste
In 2020, China’s popular idol-survival show, CHUANG 2020, found itself in the centre of a storm about body size discrimination. To promote the ‘small-waist yogurt’ of its biggest sponsor, the show set up a ‘waist challenge’ obstacle course. Only the thinnest could make it through, and eventually a girl with a waist measuring a mere 49cms won. Critics rounded on the show for encouraging an unhealthy, anxiety-inducing and unattainable female aesthetic.
The damage done to the brand’s image was far less, however, than the loss of traffic and sales that resulted from the ‘milk waste controversy’. During the third season of the talent variety show Youth with You Season 3, well-organised fan clubs raised money to buy the sponsor Mengniu’s yogurt drink ‘Zhenguoli’. The only aim was to obtain the QR code on the packaging, which allowed purchasers to cast additional votes for contestants. A video showing the actual contents being poured into a drainage ditch went viral on the internet.
Such egregious waste was picked up on by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, and the show was suspended just days before the scheduled finale for ‘misleading young people and eroding their values’. The consequences multiplies: the show’s idol group (typically used for follow-up promotion) was canceled, the price of the sponsored product cut by half, and similar variety shows are now facing much greater censorship.
On the day for Youth with You Season 2 Finale, fans bought Mengniu fruit yogurt drink outside the venue for additional votes to put on a final sprint for the contestants they support
A Time to Reconsider?
These incidents aside, can one claim that brands are still unquestionably benefiting from the undoubted increase in sales driven by talent shows? Not really. Despite being financially lucrative in the short term, sponsorship does not appear to bring long-term sales growth. When Mengniu sponsored Youth with You Season 2 with its hero product ‘Fruit Yogurt Milk’ in 2020, . there was the extraordinary phenomenon of fans buying it for the additional votes to support their favoured contestants while saying they never wanted to see it again. They were literally ‘sickened’ by the need to purchase votes, by the perceived focus on marketing rather than on improving the drink’s taste; and the product’s reputation was severely impacted.
Idol survival show fans complained that Mengniu only thought of earning quick money, the drinks they bought for their idols made them sick and how they would never buy from the brand again because their idol did not make it into the final debut lineup.
What is perhaps just as damaging is that brand narratives disappear behind that of the shows they sponsor. Of the 6,000 or so user reviews of Mengniu’s Fruit Yogurt Milk on its official Tmall site, barely one is about the product. Instead, almost all reviews contain images of their sponsored show’s contestants. This is hardly surprising given the lack of nuance in how products have been integrated into these talent shows: flagship sponsors are mentioned every few minutes, while contestants and hosts act out awkward and dated scenes of consuming the product on camera. The seemingly sensible attempt to leverage the emotional investment of fans now stands accused of having descended into a toxic and exploitative farce, with the original idea of empowering viewers to cast a simple vote for a favourite contestant long gone.
The way forward
Since 2018, more than 60 brands have sponsored idol-survival shows. With an exclusive title sponsorship costing as much as 300m RMB, many of the smaller brands unable to afford this are unlikely to have gained much for their lower billing. Add in the waning influence of talent shows (should they be allowed to survive) and the alienation of mainstream consumers by extreme fandom, and the imperative for brands to think again is strong.
One creative response perhaps shows the way: in 2018, the sponsors of Hot Blood Dance Crew co-created short ad films, in which dancers interpreted the product stories in highly differentiated ways. For once, a national conversation rather than hysteria was engaged.