In 1994 The Lion King made history as the first animated film to be imported into China. So for many watching Disney’s remake last week, the story of Simba regaining his rightful place in the animal kingdom was a reminder of their childhoods. “It was 25 years ago that my parents brought me to watch the film. And 25 years later, I am taking my own children to watch it again,” one netizen wrote, referring to Jon Favreau’s reboot of a movie that saw the Swahili phrase ‘hakuna matata’ go global.
The new version of The Lion King made Rmb700 million ($110 million) in its first 10 days at the Chinese box office. To drum up local interest, Disney tapped pop icon Cai Xukun to promote it. A member of a boy band that emerged from the wildly popular reality talent contest Idol Producer (see WiC405), Cai has 25.7 million followers on Sina Weibo and is a favourite for advertisers that want to reach a younger audience. He now endorses a host of brands including Levi’s, the NBA and Prada (he’s the first Chinese spokesperson for the luxury label).
Disney’s decision to hire Cai to endorse the film wasn’t universally welcomed, however. In an open letter posted a day before The Lion King’s release last week, a weibo user published an open letter that complained that Cai was unfit for comparison with the film’s main character.“Simba was my childhood hero… So I am now very dejected to see Cai representing Simba because he stands for everything Simba does not,” the netizen thundered. “Simba [is] an honest, courageous and heroic icon who rose from defeat and reclaimed his honour.”
Objections to Cai often seem to centre on his intense commercialism. The 20 year-old pop icon is sometimes derided as a “traffic star” – referring to the crowds of dedicated fans that are willing to pay for anything that he ‘likes’ online. But back in February, state broadcaster CCTV called him out for purchasing fake interactions on social media to boost his online popularity. There were also accusations that he paid for ‘brushers’ (see WiC377) to inflate the number of reposts of his weibo posts, and his many ‘likes’ online.
After the anti-Cai letter went viral, fans rushed to defend their idol. “I wasn’t planning to watch The Lion King at first, but for my idol, I’ll contribute a movie ticket,” one of the singer’s devotees vowed.
“I bought not one but six tickets,” another boasted. “Of course you have to go and see it if it has got Cai Xukun’s endorsement!”
In a related controversy, Cai’s popularity online was soon being contrasted with that of the older and more established Mandopop superstar, Jay Chou. Last week, in a post on Douban, the TV series and film review site, a contributor questioned the popularity of the 40 year-old Taiwanese singer, noting he doesn’t even operate a weibo account.
“I have heard people say that it’s difficult to buy his [Chou’s] concert tickets. But after I looked into it, I found that he couldn’t even make it onto Weibo’s Super Topic list. All his endorsements never generated more than 10,000 likes. Does he even have that many fans?” the contributor queried.
Weibo’s Super Topic list is a test of popularity in different ways. The function allows users to create and join interest-based, community pages. The list also has rankings that reflect the amount of activity in each group. That gives fans more reason to stay active – if they post enough comments on the platform, it boosts the standing of their favourite celebrity in the ranking.
“You have to understand, most of Jay Chou’s fans are from the post-80s and 90s generations. That means they are mostly in their 30s by now. They don’t know what the chao hua [the Super Topic list] is,” a netizen explained.
But after the post about Chou was widely forwarded, his mainland fans decided they had to respond by trying to get their idol to the top of ranking in question. Within three days, he surged from nowhere to second place, trailing only Cai, who has headed the list for more than 60 consecutive weeks.
Chou’s ascent soon led local media to frame the affair as a “duel” between the two pop stars.
Yue Shenshan, a well-known Beijing-based lawyer, explained in his own weibo post why he’d joined the effort to boost Chou’s online popularity: “I joined the craze with a bunch of middle-aged and older people to help Jay Chou top the Super Topic list. As an older person, I needed to prove to the young generation that it’s not because Jay Chou has no influence, nor because his fans aren’t passionate. It’s just they don’t care about [social media] traffic.”
By the fourth day, Chou’s fans could put down their smartphones because the singer had toppled Cai from the top spot. Cai’s fans were chastened, although in a tacit recognition of their defeat they claimed they would redirect their attention to Cai’s music and his other commercial endorsements as a way of showing their support.
“The ‘traffic’ war between Jay Chou’s fans and Cai Xukun’s has to be the most absurd farce of the social media era,” ThePaper.cn concluded tersely. But others pointed out that the fracas illustrated something else: what it means for an artist to have genuine staying power. “Jay Chou does not need Super Topic to prove his popularity. Numbers are all passing clouds. Only the best work will last forever,” a fan wrote.
Meanwhile Disney executives back in California may now be wondering if they might have got more bang for their buck if Chou had been tapped as an ambassador for The Lion King rather than Cai. After all, if the priority was to drum up some nostalgia about the 1994 original, Chou’s fan demographic is the perfect fit in age terms.
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