Last year may not have been the best one to buy a house. For famous film director Feng Xiaogang it was not a good time to be encouraging others to do so either.
According to the Beijing Morning Post, Feng was sued by an irate home purchaser – a Mr Zhang – for his part in endorsing a housing development on television. Zhang paid Rmb1.6 million for a two-level apartment after seeing Feng’s commercial. “I can reliably tell you that everything you see is real,” the director had confided.
But Zhang claims the reality was somewhat different; a leaky bathroom, a buckled floor and faulty air conditioning. So he sued the director for Rmb80,000 ($11,700) in compensation: “I bought this apartment because I trusted Feng Xiaogang. But he hadn’t done the necessary checking up on what he was endorsing, so he engaged in false advertising.”
Earlier this month, legislators in the National People’s Congress (NPC) added their own potential censure. Provisions within the Food Safety Law will see celebrities incur legal responsibility for any faulty product that they promote. The law goes into effect on June 1 this year.
Celebrities have complained about the new legislation, with Feng Xiaogang himself demanding “justice for stars”. They question why the newspapers, television channels and advertising agencies also involved in promotion activities do not face similar constraints. They have also asked how an actor or actress can determine if a product is safe.
Other celebrities have shared Feng’s experience. Guo Degang – a famous xiangsheng actor – was sued after endorsing a weight-loss tea that a claimant insisted was falsely advertised. Zhang Tielin (an emperor in various TV dramas) faced action over an advertisement for a medicinal alcohol that was claimed to remedy cardiovascular disease, arthritis, renal disease, anaemia, and various other conditions.
Both actors won their cases. The court also rejected the claim against Feng, finding that an endorser who is not “objectively wrong,” is not responsible for the advertisement itself. But the largest case – the Sanlu melamine milk contamination – is still in process. Two actresses, Ni Ping and Deng Jie, have been sued for more than Rmb90,000 by a Chongqing resident over their role in endorsing the tainted infant formula.
A readiness to pay too much attention to celebrity viewpoints seems commonplace in many countries. Researchers at Duke University have even discovered a similar tendency amongst rhesus monkeys, which will give up cherished treats to look at photographs of dominant troop leaders. Evidence of the evolutionary origins of weekly entertainment magazines, perhaps.
But could the Chinese be a little less conditioned to questioning the marketing messages to which they are increasingly exposed?
Certainly they have had less practice than Western consumers, who have been on the receiving end of product marketing for half a century. A large swathe of the Chinese population also grew up in a different era of mass communication – Maoism – in which challenging the message was not much of an option.
So some commentators have argued that the problem of celebrity endorsements in China is worsened by a prevailing mentality to accept statements at face value (or at least to do so more readily than their more cynical counterparts in other countries). The NPC legislation may be seeking to up the penalties for those who take advantage of this situation.
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