You have seen him flip, swivel and jump, bamboozling hundreds of opponents in his kung-fu comedies. But for most Chinese, there’s no need to go to the cinema to catch Jackie Chan in action.
Forget his fast-moving feet and fists. Instead it is Chan’s face doing most of the work nowadays, adorning brands as diverse as Canon cameras and frozen dumplings. During Chinese broadcasts of the 2012 London Olympics, Chan was ubiquitous. Commercials featuring him got many more minutes of airtime than coverage of any Chinese medal winner.
Chan endorses so many products that there is no agreed total in the media for the number of brands that he represents. Because of the wide range of his endorsements, a number of products bearing Chan’s seal of approval in China have turned out to be duds. An air conditioner that Chan espoused reportedly blew up. An auto repair school plugged to aspiring Chinese mechanics was enmeshed in a diploma scandal. And a maker of video compact discs went bankrupt and saw its manager jailed for fraud.
As a result, netizens joke that when it comes to endorsement, there is a “Jackie Chan curse”. Or as a Nanjing newspaper wrote rather sarcastically in an editorial: “He has become the coolest spokesperson in history. A man who can destroy anything.”
Few of Chan’s promotional efforts have cratered as publicly as Bawang International. In 2010 the Guangzhou-based firm was accused of allowing carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) into its hair products (the shampoo in question was supposed to prevent hair loss). Bawang denied it (suing the magazine that made the allegation) but the perception looks to have stuck with consumers. Sales have steadily faltered and Bawang announced in March that net losses had widened to Rmb617 million ($99.4 million) in 2012, compared with Rmb559 million in the previous financial year.
Lacklustre demand for its flagship shampoo range has clearly been a major factor, as the category contributes the majority of Bawang’s revenues. A sales manager told Qianjiang Evening News that supermarket sales were down dramatically to just 10 bottles a month in some stores. Many chains have shrunk Bawang’s shelf space. Tesco only carries four of its shampoo varieties compared with 10 two years ago.
Bawang, which makes shampoo with Chinese herbal extracts, has attempted to resuscitate its business by promoting its own brand of herbal tea. And perhaps worried about the “Jackie Chan curse”, it hired another kung-fu star, Donnie Yen, to endorse that product. To be fair to Jackie, the switch has done little to lift sales. In its most recent financial statements the company admitted that the tea operation is also bleeding cash.
“A shampoo maker selling herbal tea is obviously a mistake. It is a serious brand dilution and operationally, herbal tea also has little synergy with shampoo,” an industry observer told CBN. “Bawang is now finding out that the business model of selling a bottle of Rmb60 shampoo is different from selling a Rmb3 can of herbal tea.”
Bawang must now hope that it avoids the fate of Fenhuang Cola, another beverage that Chan has endorsed but which has since gone out of business.
Chan’s critics say the ‘curse’ stems from his willingness to promote just about anything, from well-known global brands through to more obscure regional products. Many celebrities limit their endorsements to products that they know well or that enhance their own reputation as stars. Chan’s less discriminatory approach probably guarantees that he’ll pitch the occasional clunker.
“When you have someone with so many brands, the probability of things going wrong is markedly higher,” agrees Saurabh Sharma, a strategic planning director for Ogilvy & Mather Beijing. “It’s rare to be in the industry for so long and be clear of controversy.”
But, Chan reckons he’s been treated unfairly by the press. “I have always been very careful with the products I endorse,” he told media shortly after Bawang’s shampoo crisis broke. “But there are some media who are gunning for me and a few other artists – I am not sure why – as though it is better that we all just died.”
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