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China's endorsement culture develops

News, 06 January 2015

BEIJING: A change in the law means brands in China will no longer be able to use celebrity endorsements in the same way they have done in the past.

The country's marketers have relied heavily on this tactic and on occasion the association between star and product has been obscure. Male singer and actor Jiro Wang last year defended himself from the ridicule he attracted for promoting a brand of sanitary towel – by saying members of his family used the product.

New 'truth in advertising' legislation, however, will require celebrities to use the products themselves.

"Celebrity endorsers need not be loyal fans of a product they are endorsing but should be light users or at least be familiar with the product," explained Jason Spencer, managing director of Millward Brown Shanghai.

He told Campaign Asia-Pacific: "If a celebrity mother were to endorse an infant milk formula brand, she should at least have children of that age."

The choice of example was instructive, as this category has faced particular trust issues following a 2008 scandal when some formula milk powder was found to be contaminated with melamine.

Other categories where trust is an issue – such as OTC medicines, health supplements or food – are likely to be most affected by the legislation, according to Haidong Guan, executive planning director at Grey China, an ad agency.

"Most advertising with celebrities is meant for short-term business returns rather than long-term brand building," he observed.

With some leading stars lending their names to more than 20 products at any one time, Campaign Asia-Pacific noted this led to "media clutter and declining brand linkage".

The new law may help to reduce some of this confusion, at the same time as a new endorsement model is beginning to emerge. Rather than simply paying large sums to put a big name alongside their own, brands are looking to develop content which also features a celebrity.

Janie Ma, director of OgilvyEntertainment China, a specialist agency, suggested that celebrity endorsers were moving away from being "slogan shouters" to being "content creators with clearer relevance to brands [and] who use their own social media platforms as channels for the brand's messaging".

Data sourced from Campaign Asia-Pacific; additional content by Warc staff