Last word from the East: Sex sells in China

This article was written by Ed Bell and first appeared in WARC.

Things have been steadily ‘hotting up’ and cooling down in China. The last escalation took place a few months ago in December, when a highly anticipated TV show called The Saga of Wu Zetian, the true story of a concubine with a strong appetite for violence and sex who rose to become China’s first female emperor, was pulled off the air ‘for technical reasons’ after one week. While no official explanation was offered, China’s social media circles settled on their own explanation: the truth of the Tang dynasty was too hot for the censors. The show that fans jokingly referred to as ‘The saga of the squeezed breasts’ got itself squeezed in the battle between a liberalising middle class and a reluctant government parent.

The ‘de-cleavaging’ of the racier TV shows is just the tip of the mountain. China’s auto shows, for example, used to feature ‘proper looking’ ladies posing next to the new cars, smiling mostly innocently. However, year by year, the skirts crept up and the tops snuck down to the point that the ladies became the stars. And with topless girls on show, the cars became mere props.

And while China’s censor is buttoning up the shirts on the mass audience TV shows, China’s internet remains rampantly populated by suggestion. On the front page of China’s main internet portals, busty girls in bikinis are everywhere. Ironically, the websites of the ‘liberal West’ look positively puritan when compared to those of China that trumpets its disdain for smuttiness.

Nudity and sexually suggestive content has always been officially considered taboo in modern China. However, it is a universal truth that we are always interested in teasing the limits of taboos, and for marketing this is increasingly a viable strategy as it creates instant excitement and a sense of modernity, showcasing the brand that is both ‘within’ the Chinese system but also helping the society to push the modern definition of ‘Chineseness’ forward.

Recently, Elong, an online travel company, launched a commercial to promote its mobile app for hotel booking. In the ad, a couple run into a hotel’s elevator full of excitement, their affection suggesting foreplay. While in the lift, they use the app to book a room but in a very suggestive, playful way. By the time they arrive at the lobby on the 66th floor they are ‘booked’ and ‘ready to go’. A modern solution for a new China that is less reserved and more publicly expressive.

And Durex shows how, in China, the lighter touch is the best way to test the limits of taboo. During a period of torrential rainfall, Durex got its brand and the sex topic back on the front page and top of mind by posting photos showing how people were keeping their footwear dry by slipping Durex condoms over their shoes. Protection you need.

And digital channels can work as a kind of ‘test bed’ for content too hot for mainstream, but worthy of experimentation. Lynx/Axe, Unilever’s ‘hope in a can’ for teenage boys, showed how this works just as well in China as it does in the West. To help ramp up awareness in China, Lynx produced two different stories. The first for TV safely suggested that after showering a man might smell like a woman and Axe can help fix that. Message received.

But it was the second message using online content that really got people talking. Playing off the homonym of ‘little brother’ sounding like slang for penis, the online version shows the hero showering his lower parts, the voice saying he is washing his ‘little brother’. We think a big taboo got busted, but then the camera goes down and we see that our hero is washing a miniature version of himself – his ‘little brother’. Joke delivered, engagement achieved. With this humorous angle on a sexy topic, they won 474,000 followers on Weibo and its Tmall store received a boost in sales offtake.

Sexuality is always a tricky topic and in China it is especially sensitive. But even as the government strives to restrict the marketer’s instinct to take consumers to the edge of permissibility, digital helps us to discover what’s possible.