Think of a popular historical television drama in recent years. Downton Abbey, perhaps, or Outlander. Now imagine that mid-way through an episode, one of the main characters turns to the camera and promotes a shampoo or a credit card. It might seem more than a little disruptive to the storyline. After all, the ‘suspension of belief’ is generally important to audience enjoyment.
Yet in China that is exactly what happens in popular online dramas such as The Story of Yanxi Palace and Secret Dragon in the Abyss. Some dramas set in more contemporary times – such as Day and Night – also contain these so-called ‘embedded ads’. The trend began about three years ago and at first viewers found it amusing. But as the ads proliferated the joke wore off.
Novelist Ma Boyong spoke for many earlier this month when he took to Sina Weibo to say that these kinds of advertisements are ruining the shows in which they appear.
In his post – now viewed over 65 million times – he complained the inserted ads undermine the illusion that authors, actors and directors have worked to create. He cited the example of Man Chong, a character in Secret Dragon in the Abyss, a series based on one of his novels. “The role of Man Chong was played very well: dark, deep and serious. But in the inserted ad he became a joke… singing and dancing. After that I couldn’t go back to the show,” he lamented. Many netizens agreed, saying they find the character-based commercials “confusing” or “weird”.
“Often, when they first begin, I think they are part of the show,” moaned one. Others grumbled that viewers can’t skip the promotional material – unlike more typical commercials, which you don’t have to watch if you subscribe to a VIP streaming package.
The commercials first appeared in 2013 in a show called Longmen Express. Initially advertisers were sceptical and prices for the slots were low – about Rmb500,000 ($73,786) for a one-minute ad, according to sohu.com.But as more viewers switched from terrestrial TV to Netflix-like streaming sites such as iQiyi, prices per ad have risen to as much as Rmb15 million, says market research firm EntGroup.
The question now is whether the ads can survive the growing backlash from audiences.
Most likely they might run into more problems with the censors, too, who tend to be particularly sensitive about historical dramas and have laid down numerous directives for the format. “Less cleavage” was one (see WiC265) and “Don’t alter official history” was another (a reason why ‘time travel’ dramas were banned, see WiC108).
But even if the regulators don’t intervene, the embedded ads may die a more natural death because viewers find them so annoying.
In another recent example from another show, a lady-in-waiting wants to help a member of the royal family escape the palace to avoid being killed. “We need somewhere beautiful and convenient,” she says, using language that is a little too modern. A soldier then suggests she check out Xiaozhu – an Airbnb-style short term rentals app (see WiC349).
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