The practice of using erotica in marketing to lure customers dates back as least far as the 1870s. That’s when Pearl Tobacco featured a nude female figure reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus on its posters. Pears Soap, likewise, pictured a witch riding a broom naked on its promotional material in 1899. The idea is that humans tend to have an instinctive response to sexual imagery, and hence the inclusion of carnal elements almost always guarantees attention, regardless of the actual subject of the advertisement.
In China, a staunch champion of this “sex sells” mentality found itself in hot water lately, as the marketing of its flagship product was widely considered to be even more crude and provocative than usual. Trying to promote its already well-known ready-to-drink coconut juice, Yeshu featured 29 year-old actress Xu Dongdong on its packaging and in its publicity. In the image Xu – well known in China for her prominent décolletage – poses in a way that makes her bust stand out in her lycra bodysuit. Against this is the tag line: “I’ve drunk it all along – from little to grown-up”.
Indeed she may have done: in the 1990s Yeshu’s coconut milk was one of the most iconic beverages nationwide. The brand was even served at state banquets.
But also embedded in her endorsement is a suggestive pun in Chinese that Xu’s breasts have grown to their current size because she enjoyed Yeshu’s drink from childhood. Incredibly, the Hainan-based firm has been marketing its coconut milk in a similar style for more than 20 years. One of its earliest commercial on state broadcaster CCTV, for instance, featured a woman climbing a coconut tree, emphasing her breasts in a bikini.
Many consumers found Yeshu’s latest campaign repulsive. In a survey by Beijing News, nearly half of the respondents considered the marketing strategy shoddy and felt that it had put them off buying its products in the future. Over half of the interviewees were men.
“Yeshu makes me want to puke. I really love their coconut juice, but I’m afraid I have to say goodbye to it. I won’t buy it again. Too disrespectful to women,” said a weibo user. “I’m from Hainan. And the taste [of its coconut drink] remains excellent. I’m proud whenever someone praises Yeshu. But this ad – I guess best not to mention it,” another netizen lamented.
The barrage of criticism has prompted intervention from the local government in Haikou. It said last month that it had already started investigating Yeshu for promotions that might have breached the law due to indecent or misleading content. Yeshu responded by immediately replacing the racy models in its ads with students and middle-aged women to “validate” the statement “I’ve drunk it all along – from little to grown-up”. Despite this, the People’s Daily still hit back at the firm’s lack of ethics in an op-ed, and compared it to the likes of Tianjin Quanjian, which has been mired in false advertising scandals since the beginning of the year (see WiC436).
In a case like this, most companies would probably dismiss the marketing manager and hire a new one for the next campaign. But in Yeshu’s case the ‘creative mind’ was the chairman Wang Guangxing, according to Jiemian, a local news portal. Having turned around Yeshu in the early 1980s and guided it to become a long-standing market leader in tropical fruit drinks, Wang, now 78, is a respected patriarch at the company.
Joining the state-owned Haikou Canned Factory – Yeshu’s predecessor entity – in 1986, Wang successfully transformed the lossmaking SOE.
In the early 1990s, the company was one of the Hainan government’s biggest taxpayers. But some critics have suggested that the latest round of risqué marketing is a sign that Yeshu is under pressure to boost sales in the wake of shrinking revenues over the last five years. However, this time round sex may not sell, especially if more of its customers start to boycott the brand.
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