Entertainment, Society

Buying votes

How an online talent show boosted Unilever’s toothpaste sales by 268%


Vote for me: contestants on Tencent’s hugely popular reality TV talent show Produce 101

The massively popular reality competition Produce 101 has finished, but the controversy has just begun.

The show, which has accumulated about 5 billion views online since launching in April, follows a group of 101 contestants as they vie week-after-week for audience votes on six different online platforms.

The prize: the top 11 young women are inducted into the new female pop band Rocket Girls

One of the contestants called Wang Ju, 25, became a focal point for public affection, ranking second at one point among the show’s 22 finalists despite her “unorthodox” appearance, says the Global Times.

With darker skin colour and a rounder body, Wang had won over fans with her unyielding personality. When one of the judges asked her whether she wanted to return to the skinnier look of her younger days, she replied: “I wouldn’t want to go back. The standard of being beautiful is to be yourself. I control my own life. Having an independent spirit is too important” (for her profile see WiC413). But alas, Wang’s road to stardom came to an end when she slipped from second to eighteenth in the rankings, putting her out of the running to join the band. Her fans were even more upset when they found out in the final episode that another contestant called Yang Chaoyue – whose awful performances had turned her into an internet meme – had ended in third place.

TV critics posit that Wang was never going to make the final cut. “Produce 101, as a variety show, has to find a talking point so audiences can stay engaged and make the show more newsworthy,” says Huxiu, a portal. “If you are familiar with how the entertainment industry works, you should understand that Wang Ju was never going to make it. If she was going to win, she would have been leading a long time ago. So her sudden popularity was clearly fabricated to generate buzz.”

Even though the final was aired in late June – collecting over 460 million views – the furore over the results has rumbled on. Most of the discussion online surrounds Yang. During the season, she became famous as “the girl who likes to cry the most on the show”. She tears up when she is tired; she sobs after being criticised by the mentors; she cries when the production crew gives her an unflattering dress to wear; and she is said to have wept uncontrollably when the make-up artist messed up one of her looks, says China GQ.

But Yang’s worst offence, according to her detractors, is that she is talentless – at least from the standpoint of a female pop star. She has no sense of rhythm, which renders her one of the worst dancers on the show. She is equally inept when it comes to singing, going off-key during live performances (“she could only judge if the key was too high or too low,” one producer revealed).

But the more Yang was hated the more attractive she became to watch. “As a TV producer, all I can say is to have a contestant like Yang Chaoyue on the show is a blessing that would make me smile even in my sleep,” one seasoned TV executive wrote on weibo. “She has no singing ability, her live performance is terrible, but she generates a steady flow of buzz for the show. She was the most-talked about topic on weibo many times: ‘Yang at the scene of the car crash’ [for when she sang off-key]; ‘critics lambast Yang for her lack of talent’ and ‘Yang responding to the critics’.”

But in addition to a photogenic face, Yang has a compelling narrative that explains some of her appeal. Raised in a small village in Jiangsu province, she left school when she was 14 to pursue her dream of becoming a star in Shanghai. She worked as a waitress and passed out flyers to make ends meet. And when she walked onto the stage on the first episode, she announced, ‘I’m the hope of the entire village.’”

Small wonder, perhaps, that Yang earned a sympathy vote from rural audiences. They were fiercely loyal: the more she was mocked by urban netizens, the more devoted her fans became, frantically casting votes to support the aspiring entertainer.

“You hate her because she cried too much but I like her because she cried so much. I find her honesty very endearing,” one supporter wrote online.

Indeed, one of the key innovations about the show was the manner of selecting the winners: the audience voted, but some got more votes than others – namely those who bought products made by the programme’s sponsors.

Zhonghua, the toothpaste brand owned by Unilever, and drinks and instant noodle giant Master Kong, both offered fans the chance to help their favourite contestants when they scanned a QR code on their products – with no limit to how many times they could cast a vote.

The more they bought, the more they could help their idol get to the last 11. Some of these diehard fans spared no expense. WiC knows of one diehard supporter who purchased over Rmb10,000 ($1,502) worth of items to lobby for Yang.

“In order to win an opportunity to cast extra votes, fans would buy loads of things to give to their family and friends. So this tactic is especially useful for businesses that are launching new products,” reckoned Entertainment Capital, a blog.

The strategy definitely paid off. Master Kong, which was offering one vote for every bottle of ice tea purchased, announced that sales of the beverage went up 40% (year-on-year) during the show’s run.

Unilever’s Zhonghua reckons its toothpaste sales spiked an even bigger 268% from a year ago.

“In the past, most advertisers mainly pursued brand exposure on these variety programmes, doing little marketing beyond the show,” noted Entertainment Capital. “But shows like Produce 101, which has special attributes like online voting, have showcased just how powerful the fans are outside the show.”

On the other hand, critics of the sales campaigns have argued that encouraging fans to buy products as a means of supporting their idols is sending the wrong message to young people.

“This money, which is spent so frivolously, could have been used for social welfare, for lifting people from poverty, for cultural undertakings or even sensible investing. But instead, it is used for voting on a pop idol show. These types of collective brainwashing is even more deceitful than peer-to-peer lending and even worse than gambling,” pointed out Huxiu, rather piously.

Huxiu was similarly peeved that Yang’s victory over rivals like Wang Ju sends the message that looks and a capacity to stir controversy are more important than talent in securing success.

“The show has actually presented the wrong impression to young viewers: that if someone like Yang Chaoyue can succeed in showbiz, I can too,” it warned.

Then again, look at the brighter side, Huxiu. At least Yang’s triumph has helped to clean the nation’s teeth…

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