E-commerce livestreamer Fan Yebing (a pseudonym) has made a name for herself on Alibaba’s livestreaming platform. That’s because she bears a striking resemblance to one of China’s most recognisable faces – the actress Fan Bingbing. Even her name is a play on Fan Bingbing’s nickname Fan Ye and some of the actress’ fans have trouble telling them apart. Many have snapped up products thinking they have been endorsed by the movie star. Regular readers of these pages will recall that Fan Bingbing’s acting career was derailed by a tax scandal. But that hasn’t stopped Fan Yebing making a reported Rmb100,000 ($15,000) each time she goes live on a sales session.
The ‘real’ Fan Bingbing is not amused and recently decided to take her lookalike to court. Fan Yebing has been defiant, changing her name again to “Defendant against Fan Bayi” on the livestreaming platform (bayi translates in this context as ‘Rmb800 million’, which is how much Fan Bingbing was fined for tax evasion in 2018). She denies that she’s had any cosmetic surgery to look like the actress, and hits back that she has worked hard to cultivate a loyal following of online shoppers.
The latter part of her claim rings true: e-commerce livestreaming is a lot harder than it looks. After a period where bona fide celebrities flocked to livestreaming shows to plug products, they now seem to have all but disappeared.
The frenzy of celebrity streaming began last year when filming for TV shows and films was curtailed by the pandemic. With the country in lockdown and hundreds of millions of shoppers cooped up at home, e-commerce livestreaming exploded in popularity. Celebrities without acting jobs to go to raced into the sector. Even A-listers like Yang Mi and Zhao Wei started to turn up on livestreaming channels.
It looked to be a match made in heaven. Stars could engage with fans and get paid to sell products. Companies raised brand awareness and moved surplus inventory. The celebrity frenzy reached its peak at last year’s mid-year 618 Shopping Festival (see WiC501), which saw more than 300 stars appear on Taobao Live; while JD.com hosted another 100 on its own platform, with short video platforms Kuaishou and Douyin also trying to get in on the celebrity action.
“At the beginning of 2020, when the TV and film industry was largely suspended because of the pandemic, in order to maintain visibility and popularity – and to make some quick money – a lot of stars flocked to livestreaming,” a talent agent told the Beijing Times.
“In fact, it became something of a competition between the celebrities: if you didn’t get a call about a livestreaming deal, it meant you were not popular enough.”
For instance, actresses Liu Tao and Jing Tian signed exclusive deals with Taobao’s group-buying platform Ju Hua Suan; Hunan Satellite TV show hostess Xie Na also started her own livestreaming channel on Taobao Live. Starlet Zhang Yuqi made her e-commerce livestreaming debut on Kuaishou and actor Jia Nailiang was a frequent visitor on Suning.
But less than a year on, celebrities have almost vanished from the same formats. Only Liu and Jia still make appearances but they are few and far between.
Part of the reason is that advertisers have complained that the return on investment doesn’t justify the spending on celebrity promoters. Comedian Xiao Shenyang, who has over 17 million followers on Sina Weibo, sold only 20 bottles of a baijiu liquor in one of his appearances (of which 16 were later returned). Another former host of a Hunan Satellite TV show took home Rmb800,000 from one advertiser but failed to sell any of the mink jackets she had been asked to plug at Rmb4,000 apiece. Even a bankable star like Angelababy, with over 100 million followers on social media platforms, had a disappointing debut on Douyin, with a five-hour broadcast last July that drew just Rmb12 million in gross merchandise volume.
According to Kaiboluo Caijing, a zimitei, one fashion label hired a ‘high-traffic’ pop icon for a livestream but found that sales dropped with each subsequent appearance. “The first time fans were willing to pay for their idol to prove that they were not freeloaders. But by the second and third time, that was no longer the case,” the company told the news site.
Many stars balked at the work required to be a successful shopping host too. Two months after starting her own e-commerce livestreaming channel, Hong Kong actress Ye Xuan said she was retiring from the sector because she reckoned she could make the same amount of money – if not more – in “two commercial appearances” (e.g. ribbon-cutting or performing at annual company dinners).
Livestreaming for many of the celebrities is similar to “fuerdai becoming entrepreneurs”: that is, children of rich families starting their own businesses. While their status gives them a head-start, it doesn’t always mean that they will succeed.
A good example is Zheng Shuang who bombed in her debut performance last August. The actress didn’t seem to understand her job as she began to find fault with her surroundings, complaining about everything from the fashion style of her livestreaming co-hosts to the calibre of the goods she had been asked to endorse.
At one point, while her colleagues were explaining the details of one of the products on offer, Zheng sat back and took out her phone, even letting out a yawn.
Of course, Zheng might look back on that experience as a minor disaster compared to what’s happened to her this year (see WiC539 for more on her widely-discussed scandals over surrogacy and tax).
The truth is that many celebrities have underestimated what it takes for a livestream to be successful. From the preparation of the show’s running order to the selection of the merchandise on offer, each step requires a professional team to ensure the process runs smoothly. Tong Wei, the co-founder of a multi-channel network, reckons that it takes a team of 300 people to deliver the kind of livestreaming channel that stands out from the crowd. Another analogy sometimes offered is that of a Formula One team, where behind the star driver is a vast support structure of car designers and engineers, pit team, psychologists, fitness trainers and other talents.
Luo Yonghao, an entrepreneur-turned-livestreamer, agrees. “Only one-third of the success of a livestream has to do with the host,” he once told media, “The remaining two-thirds is the back-end operations and the supply chain management. You have to continuously find good products and negotiate good prices. That’s the only way you can stay competitive.”
Of course, with TV and film production now back in full swing, the entertainment stars and celebrities are busier again. The interest in grabbing a spot on a livestream has receded. But that’s not to say that livestreaming is disappearing as a commercial activity. It merely concludes a chapter in the industry’s growth. “Without the celebrities, livestreaming now returns to simpler times when livestreamers go back to livestreaming and celebrities go back to being celebrities,” Kaiboluo Caijing remarks.
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