China Consumer

In very poor taste indeed

Durex blasted for racy online ads run with HeyTea


Stoked a storm in a cheesy teacup

In 2009 Burger King landed itself in hot water because of a raunchy advertisement in Singapore. It featured a blonde woman agape at one of the chain’s seven-inch burgers with the words below saying: “Fill your desire for something long, juicy and flame-grilled with the NEW BK SUPER SEVEN INCHER”. The material was slammed for its explicit innuendo. The model wasn’t happy about how her image was used in the ad either and she later protested on a YouTube video entitled “Burger King digitally-raped my face”.

‘Sex sells’ is a popular marketing mantra – but only when a balance is struck. More often than not, overly erotic gimmicks backfire and embarrass the brands being advertised. In China the British condom brand Durex and Shenzhen-based teahouse chain HEYTEA have proven the latest casualties.

On April 19 a series of posters were released for Durex’s none-too-subtle “ForOneNight” campaign on Sina Weibo. One was a co-branding effort with HEYTEA, most famous in China for its cheese-topped tea. The online ad showed a teacup with a creamy droplet and the slogan “Tonight, not a single drop left”. Accompanying the ad were some titillating exchanges between the two firms: “Hi, do you still remember our second date, when I said to you: ‘Your first bite is the most precious’?” asked Durex. “Hi DuDu, I remember the date,” HEYTEA replied, “We agreed from that day onwards, my cheese will always be on your lips.”

Netizens generally found the double entendre hard to stomach, calling it “lowbrow” and “nauseating”. It took little time for the hashtag “DurexCopywriteBlunder” to become the most searched item on weibo.

“A lot of people might think that the advertisement of a product designed for safe sex must be all about ‘sex’. But all previous copywriting of Durex revolved around the idea of ‘love’,” wrote a weibo user, citing earlier Durex promotions.

In fact, Durex’s ads in China have often won plaudits for their originality. In 2011, for example, it got a lot of attention by demonstrating how sneakers – wrapped in condoms – could be protected during rainy days. And early last year, it issued a series of acclaimed animal-themed posters that partnered with brands such as Lacoste and Puma.

The shift in style is attributable to Durex’s recent switch of advertising agencies, according to Huxiu. In the seven years prior to late 2018 the UK brand had always relied on the creative input of Beijing-based digital agency SocialBeta, which also counts e-commerce operator and dating app Momo as its customers. Its current agency NeOne was established in Shanghai five years ago.

According to Huxiu, SocialBeta’s high fees – tens of millions of yuan per annum – were widely thought to be the reason for the creative parting of ways. However, some netizens, disappointed by the more vulgar recent campaign, have reminded Durex of the maxim: you get what you pay for.

As for HEYTEA, the partnership has backfired too. “I was thinking about buying a cup of HEYTEA before hopping onto the high-speed train, but once I saw the ad I don’t even want to have a sip of their tea,” commented one disgruntled weibo user.

According to food delivery company Meituan Dianping, which handled over 210 million milk tea orders last year, 95% of its female users under the age of 26 buy milk tea on a weekly basis.

A big share is thought to be made by HEYTEA, which has pioneered creative, new-style teas. Its success has also prompted a lot of imitators, which partly explains why HEYTEA wanted to differentiate itself with an edgier marketing campaign.

The ad has caused consternation at multiple levels. Indeed owing to the country’s tightened regulatory environment – which has affected content created by zimeiti bloggers, short-video streaming sites and TV dramas – HEYTEA and Durex quickly and apologetically retracted their posts.

Instead they came up with a new illustration and slogan, which read “Tonight, you’re my nice guy.” (“Nice guy” sounds like naigai in Mandarin, meaning “cheese topping”).

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