Candy that left a sour taste

Starlet faces big fine over infringing China’s advertising laws

Jing Tian w

It’s been a pretty costly week for top actress Jing Tian

Last week we wrote about how German carmaker Audi was embroiled in a media storm after an advertisement featuring Andy Lau was found to have copied content from an earlier video made by Chinese internet personality Beida Mange. Audi had to withdraw the ad, issuing apologies for the fiasco to Lau and Beida Mange.

This week another celebrity became headline news for another commercial endorsement. Actress Jing Tian, who has appeared in a series of Hollywood films like 2016’s The Great Wall and 2018’s Pacific Rim Rising has been fined a total of Rmb7.22 million ($1.08 million) for endorsing a product that violates China’s Advertising Law.

The product in question, Infinite Free, is a brand of dietary candy  made from fruit and vegetables which claims to reduce the absorption of fat, sugar and oil into the body.

“No fear of oil and sugar, eat your heart out without worrying about getting fat. It is a mysterious weapon to maintain your body shape,” goes the tagline.

In the advert, Jing also suggests that the product will “keep people in good shape” by taking two “candies” after each meal.

The product, which has since been pulled from shelves on major e-commerce platforms like Taobao and JD.com, was sold for about Rmb100 for each box.  But don’t call them diet pills, the sales pitch at Infinite Free adds, because the candies are made of natural white kidney bean extract, which contains alpha-amylase inhibitors (also known as starch blockers) that help to suppress carbohydrate digestion.

For the sweets to be effective, consumers are told they should swallow two with all three meals each day for at least three months. One shopper told Legal Daily that she spent Rmb3,000 for 25 boxes of Infinite Free while maintaining her regular diet and fitness routine and was disappointed to find that she didn’t lose any weight whatsoever, despite consuming more than 10 boxes of the candies.

On e-commerce platforms, angry consumers left complaints about the product not working as well. “It’s a fraud. I took it for a long time and didn’t lose any weight. It did mess with my hormones though,” one thundered.

The ingredients list suggests that the product mostly includes erythritol (a sugar substitute), soluble fibre known as resistant dextrin, algin, white kidney bean powder and other fruit and vegetable powder, categorising the product as “ordinary food”. However, China’s advertising laws prohibit that category of food from being marketed as having therapeutic functions. The State Administration for Market Regulation also concluded that the  product had no significant health benefits, despite Jing’s emphasis of its benefits in the advertising campaign.

As punishment, Jing had to fork out her Rmb2.6 million pay cheque from the endorsement deal. The actress was fined an additional Rmb4.6 million for duping consumers. Southern Metropolis Daily also reported that Jing is likely to be banned from other commercial endorsements for the next three years.

Soon after the news of the fine went viral online, the actress published an apology on her personal weibo for failing to do the proper due diligence before agreeing to endorse the product. Jing said she acknowledged her mistakes and had paid the fines, and vowed not to endorse other such products in the future.

The People’s Daily still felt the need to issue a strongly worded warning against celebrity endorsements.

“In order to pursue high profits a commercial advertisement – endorsed by a celebrity – that breaks the law is not being turned down or blocked but instead being magnified and promoted on a grand scale. Such mistakes should not occur,” it rebuked.

“The vast number of stars should take the case as a mirror and a warning, and always respect the law  when engaging in advertising endorsement activities,” the state-run newspaper wrote.

Most commentators were supportive of the fine as well: “While it is understandable for celebrities to use their fame to make money, they should at least be responsible for the safety of consumers first. Using their influence to take advantage of their fans is not acceptable. It is clear she knows that what she did was wrong,” NetEase blasted.

Other celebrity endorsers have run into similar difficulties. Well-known TV show hosts like Wang Han and Du Haitao both became hot topics online when the peer-to-peer lending platforms they endorsed went bust, for instance. The milk tea brand that enlisted actress Ma Yili as a sponsor was also suspected of fraud, with thousands of franchisees owed more than Rmb100 million.

Xing Long, a partner at a Beijing law firm, said the cases suggest a lack of legal awareness among many of the celebrity endorsers, who focus more on the fees than the risks in some of the contracts.

“What this tells you is that endorsement deals are just too attractive and the penalties these stars have to pay when there are scandals are simply too small. The way they handle the situation is always exactly the same: issue an apology and terminate the endorsement deal, and then promise to self-reflect and be more careful in the future… But in the end, who pays the price for all these irresponsible endorsements? Us, the consumers,” NetEase fumed.

For Jing the impact could be longer-lasting. The prolific star was reported to have at least 12 active endorsement deals, although her involvement in the scandal will see a rapid retreat from many of her sponsors.

“In the ever-changing entertainment industry, without endorsement deals starlets have a lot less media exposure and as a result, lower commercial value,” industry another blogger warned.

Fans of the 33 year-old stayed  sympathetic, however. “There are many unqualified food products circulating in the market. Why shouldn’t the marketing regulation bureau bear more of the responsibility for that?” one asked.

“To be honest, the punishment is a bit harsh,” another added.

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