China Consumer

Cosmetic understanding

SK-II lifts spirit of China’s ‘leftover’ women with clever marketing campaign

Cate Blanchett, nominated for Best Actress for her role in "Carol," arrives at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood

Blanchett: SK-II global ambassador

Chinese netizens are normally a cynical bunch but this month Japanese cosmetic company SK-II has achieved the unthinkable: it produced an online commercial that didn’t feature any of the brand’s high-end products but proved so moving that women took to social media pledging to buy its cosmetics.

The clip is essentially a four-minute film challenging the stereotype of shengnü or ‘leftover women’ – that is to say, females who are older than 25 and unmarried.

It begins with photos of the five central characters as happy, carefree children and a voiceover from their now dissatisfied parents.

“You’re so picky,” says one. “I won’t die in peace unless you are married,” says another.

In Chinese culture getting married and having a child is part of one’s filial duty. But an increasing number of young men and women are choosing to settle down later or not at all. Parents are naturally concerned about this but so is the government.

Thanks to the One-Child Policy and a traditional preference for boys over girls, there are 33 million more men than women in China (that’s 33 million men who are unlikely to find a mate). The fear is this could be a source of social instability.

Thus one theory is that the derogatory term shengnü was created by officialdom to stigmatise female singledom and encourage every available woman to marry.

But in recent years there has been pushback against the term. The urban, educated and financially independent women that the label often refers to have begun swapping the ‘sheng’ meaning ‘leftover’ for another ‘sheng’ meaning ‘victorious’.

There have also been TV series that play on that pun – such as 2013’s The Price of being a Victorious Woman.

Yet the reality of being labelled a leftover woman or being pressured into marriage can be a harsh one.

Last month a high-earning 27 year-old woman from Fujian province committed suicide in response to her parents’ repeated attempts to marry her off.

The SK-II video shows how many women feel deep sadness at resisting the parental request to marry.

“Maybe I am selfish. I want to say sorry to them,” one of the interviewees says through tears. Another says: “Maybe I should just give up on love and just find someone who is suitable.”

The four-minute clip breaks with traditional Chinese beauty ad formats given it does not feature a celebrity or actually mention any of SK-II’s skincare products.

It has now been viewed more than 2 million times.

“This ad walked straight into my heart,” wrote one netizen. “I will save money to buy their products after seeing this,” said another.

The denouement of the ad is set in Shanghai’s People’s Park ‘marriage market’ – an informal event held every weekend in which parents display written details of their single children on washing lines. The salient points are age, height, weight, profession, salary and whether the singleton owns a flat and a car. The bios are highly impersonal and don’t include photos.

That is where SK-II comes in. During its ad it creates an open air gallery in the same park displaying professionally-taken images of dozens of so-called ‘leftover women’. The women sign their photos with their name and age and explain why they haven’t married. “I don’t want to be forced to get married. I won’t be happy that way,” writes one 33 year-old. “I want to take time to find the right person. Mum, I will always support you,” writes another.

The effect on the parents is instant. “My daughter is beautiful. Leftover men should try harder,” says one mother wiping away her tears. “If she feels it is ok to be single we will still respect her,” says a father.

Women who watched the clip said they found it deeply moving. “I cried when I saw the ad, I am one of those women,” said one. “This ad is so positive. It made me proud to be a leftover woman,” said another.

Even a few men commented. “This way of forcing people to get married is driving people crazy. Marriage markets make people feel like goods to be traded for the right price,” wrote one.

Several media commentaries observed this was still an ad and that there was an obvious advantage to picking this subject – the same urban, educated, financially independent women depicted are the very demographic likely to buy SK-II’s premium products.

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