Down the drain

Mengniu marketing tactic backfires as TV show gets banned over milk waste


Judges on Youth With You 3 ­– but will their verdict ever be known?

There is rarely a shortage of ‘survival’ shows in China’s relentless stream of reality TV output. Less than a week after the debut of Tencent Video’s Produce Camp 2021, which created another much-hyped boy band called INTO1, a rival offering from iQiyi called Youth With You 3 thrust itself forward with an almost identical format.

Not that viewers seemed to mind, with the two shows consistently featuring as the most searched topics on Baidu, the country’s leading search engine. Each new episode launched another a new round of debate on social media too.

But shortly before the taping of the final episode to crown a winner on Youth With You 3, iQiyi suddenly announced that the series had been suspended indefinitely.

Last week a video was widely shared across the internet that showed a group of men and women surrounded by hundreds of cases of milk. They were ripping open the bottles, keeping the lids but pouring the milk directly down the drain.

What were they doing? It was hard to tell when the footage was filmed but netizens were convinced that the people in the video had been hired by die-hard fans keen to vote for their favourite contestants on Youth With You 3. To cast a vote in the contest, fans were encouraged to buy milk from Mengniu Dairy – the show’s title sponsor – and scan the QR codes printed inside the caps of the bottles. Each QR code counted as votes for who should be one of the nine finalists, making up the show’s latest boy band. Fans were happy to pay for the lids, hence the activity filmed last week.

It is not the first time WiC has written about the intensity of China’s fan economy (see issue 432). In support of their idols, admirers have been prepared to make repeat purchases of music or other products endorsed by the stars, as well as repeatedly making posts or comments on social media to generate supporting buzz.

In this instance, for a favourite contestant to avoid elimination from the competition, fans were buying Mengniu products in bulk to get them the votes to get through to the next round.

Some of the agencies that represent celebrities on the show have also felt compelled to outspend each other in support of their star. “We all know that no one wants to spend such a large sum to buy milk. That’s just not cost effective. But in order to show support for the contestants, we must all play by the rules. If other people buy milk and we don’t, it just looks bad,” one talent manager told 36Kr.

The voting mechanism led to a sudden surge in purchases by fans who would never consume anything like that much milk. This created a business opportunity for middlemen – like those in the video – who helped the fans to source the QR codes from the bottles and cartsons, and then to dump the milk.

All of this runs directly counter to new rules on limiting food waste, which were introduced in April as a key part of President Xi Jinping’s initiative to reduce waste in general in China. And after the video of the milk dump went viral, Xinhua was soon on the offensive with a scathing editorial that targeted the television production company. “When planning such a voting method, had they ever considered the risk of huge waste?” it asked. “Have they ever thought of shouldering any social responsibility for this. This is disrespectful to labour and it is a legal travesty. The final outcome of all of this is not only milk spilled into ditches but young peoples’ values cast into the dustbin,” the state news agency thundered.

It wasn’t long before the government intervened. Right before the filming of the finale on May 8, the Beijing Municipal Radio and Television Bureau issued a notice advising that Youth With You 3 had been suspended until iQiyi complied with broadcasting regulations.

iQiyi quickly issued the standard statement, accepting the criticism and promising to “correct its mistakes”. But because of the popularity of the franchise on the online streaming platform, shares of iQiyi dropped 4% on Nasdaq after the announcement, wiping out almost $300 million in market value.

Still, industry insiders say iQiyi shouldn’t be the only one to take the blame. According to 36Kr, this is not the first time that Mengniu has incorporated voting codes into its packaging. Last year it printed similar codes under bottle labels in another competition. As a result, a lot of fans ripped off the packaging, scanned the code and then resold the bottle at a lower price. “Since it doesn’t affect the taste or the quality of the product, a lot of fans sold the milk at a lower price on second-hand e-commerce platforms,” one idol devotee told 36Kr.

Supermarket operators also complained at the time that unscrupulous fans were ripping off the relevant part of the packaging without even buying the product. Others would first scan the codes and then return unconsumed cases of milk. Learning from that experience, the dairy giant then decided to print the codes inside the bottles. Of course, once the bottles are opened, the milk soon goes off, which makes reselling impossible. In the end, the only way to get rid of the unwanted milk is to dump it.

“Even if the company insists on printing the code in the cap, why couldn’t it change the packaging for the programme? Is that too complicated? Does it cost too much?” fumed social commentator Niudundundun. “The answer seems simple enough: just add a foil seal on the bottle. But why didn’t the dairy company do that?… What it says is that dairy companies don’t care about wastage. They only care about sales.”

Mengniu also made sure to insert the voting codes in its premium product line. Each box of its Zhenguoli brand, which costs Rmb54, delivered 10 votes. The rose and sakura flavoured milk, which is even more expensive at Rmb69.9 a case gets double the votes.

According to estimates from ThePaper.cn, the second season of Youth With You saw the fan clubs of the nine winners spending at least Rmb48 million ($7.47 million) on Mengniu products. In 2020, the dairy giant also highlighted the phenomenon in its annual report, noting how its product lines were promoted through sponsorship deals with talent shows.

After the news broke that iQiyi had been forced to suspend the episode, fans were pretty furious. “Give us back our money! How could you abruptly cancel the finale. Is this a scam?!” one protested.

Another agreed: “You say filming is cancelled but what does that mean? Is there going to be a band in the end or not? Why aren’t you apologising to the trainees and fans? We have spent so much time and money for what? iQiyi, we demand an answer!”

Perhaps the biggest winner in the whole debacle is Tencent Video, whose rival show escaped similar displeasure from the government and its huge audience of netizens. Its new boy band INTO1 is said to be planning a countrywide tour – with little sign of competition from the idols of Youth With Me who would have formed a competing outfit.









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