Over the course of her career, actress Fan Bingbing’s face has adorned countless advertisements. One estimate puts the number of her endorsement deal at over 120.
However, the starlet’s commercial appearances have been few and far between since a tax evasion scandal which landed her a record Rmb883 million ($130 million) fine in 2018. So, the internet was abuzz when the actress made a high-profile appearance recently at a Beijing auto exhibition that featured photos of her standing beside a Hongqi, or ‘Red Flag’ in English – an iconic national car brand, synonymous with Chinese industrial power during the Mao Zedong era.
On Fan’s personal weibo, she published a series of pictures that shows her posing next to a white Hongqi E-HS9, an electric SUV. Separately, her official fan account posted a video showing the starlet test-driving the car on a track.
“Oh, this is good. This is really good,” she gushed, offering her stamp of approval repeatedly.
In 1958, the first Hongqi sedan (which came with a spittoon) was produced by state-owned carmaker FAW in response to Mao’s wishes. Since its debut as the paramount leader’s parade car at his Tiananmen Square event a year later, the Hongqi limousines have long been the vehicle of choice for Chinese leaders on important state occasions.
However, when confronted by reporters as to whether the brand had hired Fan to be its spokesperson, Hongqi claimed to have no idea that she was going to show up to the event. The actress was also noticeably absent from all of Hongqi’s marketing materials for the EV. Instead, the carmaker used images of its current brand ambassador – the actor Jin Dong. On its social media page, it also chose to feature other attendees without mentioning Fan.
Tencent Entertainment cited a weibo post by a company insider which claimed Fan’s surprise appearance was a publicity stunt orchestrated by the actress and her own PR team (reportedly her video crew had filmed her test driving the car). “The truth is, like a lot of potential buyers, Fan Bingbing applied to attend the event and to test drive the car. She was not invited by the company nor was there any collaboration between the two parties. In the future, I hope that Miss Fan will stop using other people to generate traffic and discussion surrounding herself,” the post said.
But why did Fan choose to show up to a Hongqi event?
Were Fan to be seen as the face of such as an iconic brand, of course, it sends a clear signal that the starlet is back in favour with the Chinese government.
“Being a brand that has a long history with the Party, Hongqi has an irreplaceable and unique place in the hearts of Chinese people. Ever since being embroiled in the tax scandal, Fan Bingbing has struggled to fight off the negative publicity,” opined Tencent Entertainment. “For Fan, participating in a high-profile media activity is a shortcut to bring attention to herself.”
Onlookers were not too impressed by the publicity stunt: “If Fan were to endorse Hongqi it would be an insult to the Party. For Chinese people, Hongqi is not just a carmaker but has a nostalgic and almost sacred place in our collective memory. For FAW, Hongqi is the banner of China’s automobile industry, inspiring us to move forward. How can someone like Fan Bingbing and her lot represent that national spirit?” one netizen thundered.
Others reckoned that the incident only highlighted Fan’s headlong fall from grace. “Is it true that Fan Bingbing really showed up uninvited? To steal media attention? Maybe to pave the way for a comeback?” one blogger speculated. “But what’s certain is that in the past, it was other people trying to steal Fan’s spotlight, I never heard that she had to steal others.”
The extra media buzz generated by Fan’s antics is not something that Hongqi particularly needs. While Hongqi has lagged behind German carmakers in the luxury car segment, it has seen a recent revival amid a patriotic push to promote homegrown brands.
In fact, the brand’s biggest ambassador has been a certain Xi Jinping, news portal HK01 observes, who has brought his own Hongqi limousine with him on most of his diplomatic trips since 2018 (Chinese leaders generally had previously used vehicles provided by the host countries). The Chinese president also visited FAW’s research headquarters in July, calling for the country’s carmakers to develop core technologies that boost national automotive brands.
In the first half of this year, despite the impact of the pandemic, the sales of Hongqis exceeded 70,000 vehicles, a year-on-year increase of 111%. The company’s goal is to sell 200,000 cars by the end of this year.
Sales of its sedan and electric car have helped the brand attract new customers. Hongqi’s newly released H9, a luxury sedan with a conventional combustion engine, is being marketed as one of the few domestic models that could rival those from the German BBA trinity (Benz, BMW and Audi). The electric SUV that Fan posed next to is priced between Rmb550,000 and Rmb750,000, and has a range of more than 510 kilometres per charge. The car, the company claims, also accelerates from zero to 100km/h in less than five seconds.
If only the same speed could apply to Fan’s career turnaround…
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