(09/20/2008) (Chang Ping at Southern Metropolis Daily)
After the Sanlu milk powder case broke open, the celebrity spokespersons Deng Jie, the Flower Band, Xue Jianing, Jiang Wenli and others were pilloried by the public. Their agents, family members and friends pleaded innocence on their behalf. Some commentators even felt that they were wrongfully blamed. But the celebrities themselves did not make any public appearances. I don’t think that they are that innocent and I don’t think that they should be evading the issue.
What is a brand? Strictly speaking, it is the reputation that a brand accumulates among consumers over a long period of time. The reforms in China have been happening for only thirty years. Each year, many brands became big names through advertising, especially with celebrity endorsements. Since China is such a huge market with few or no regulations, it is easy for celebrities to earn money while being less demanding and rigorous.
A celebrity is a person with influence in society. Businesses naturally seek them out as spokespersons. It is also natural for them to trade their influence for money. However, their influence is a brand in itself. When this brand is used to promote another brand, the interests of the two are tied together. If there is a win, it is a double win; if there is a loss, it is a double loss. Everybody knows that trust is a pre-condition for doing business. Over the years, some celebrities have been known to tell straight-faced lies to deceive consumers. Even if the products are okay, their images ought to have gone bankrupt. The situation now is that many children have been hurt because of the deception in this case.
There are two types of celebrity advertisements. One is an image ad, such as the co-placement of Liu Xiang’s face next to the Nike logo accompanied by vacuous phrases such as “Friendship first, competition second” and so on. There is no deception issue here. But if Nike gets into trouble, Liu Xiang’s image would suffer as well. Conversely, if Liu Xiang gets into trouble, Nike may have to think of a way to “save its market” including jettisoning him. Every business carries risks, and there is no perfect arrangement with zero downside. If you happen to encounter the wrong partner, you can only blame your own bad luck and you should stop complaining.
There is another kind of celebrity advertisement in China. In these advertisements, the celebrities play the role of salespersons. They tell lies with sincere expressions to trick people. Now that would be deception. If Liu Xiang says, “I only wear Nike” but he actually wears Li Ning brand shoes, then even a 3-year-old child knows that this is a lie. So let us listen to Deng Jie’s advertisement: “I am very picky when it comes to baby milk powder. It has to be professionally manufactured; its quality has to be guaranteed; it has to be a famous brand because that would reassure me; it must also be economical. I trust Sanlu baby milk powder!” The message is clear: I, Deng Jie, have chosen Sanlu after poring over many choices. Is that true?
The celebrity may explain, “I am only acting in a commercial, just like in a drama show.” NOT! When you are acting, everybody knows that you are playing the role of Wang Xifeng (note: a character in <Dream of the Red Chamber>) and you are not Deng Jie herself. The words of Wang Xifeng do not represent the will of Deng Jie. But a celebrity endorsement is different unless you make it clear that the role that you are playing is not Deng Jie but it is Wang Jie, a junior salesperson at the Sanlu Company.
According to media reports, advertising laws in the western world stipulate that spokespersons (such as movie stars, celebrities, experts and persons of authority) must be authentic users or else it becomes false advertising; at the same time, if the wording of the ad suggests that the product is superior in some way, then there must be some factual basis for the assertion. Pat Boone, Michael Jackson and others have gotten into trouble over false advertising, for which they were condemned or fined. In Japan, a celebrity has to apologize to the public for making false advertisements as well as face the risk of career termination. In France, the television host Gilbert went to jail for exaggerating the effectiveness of a product.
Please note that people are now deploring the Sanlu spokespersons not over some mild exaggeration but because they were promoting tainted milk powder which has caused kidney ailments among several thousand babies including three deaths already. This is a serious food safety crisis. Are the spokespersons really unaware that many mothers trusted them and bought the milk powder after seeing their ads? Under such circumstances, even if you didn’t realize before that the milk powder was tainted, shouldn’t you come out to make an apology for promoting it?
The celebrities felt the most misgiving about not being able to test the quality of the products themselves. They all claimed to have read the quality test reports from the authoritative government departments, the certificates of honor and so on. All the documents were stamped with red seals of approval. But the situation is simple. The authoritative government departments have misled the celebrities, who misled the public in turn. The normal reaction for the celebrities is to be outraged. They should come out to explain what happened and to condemn the relevant departments. They should not be like turtles coiling up into their shells. Don’t celebrities claim to have social responsibility? In truth, social responsibility is an important component of the brand equity of the celebrity that is used to earn money. This so-called social responsibility is not just donating small sums of money. It is about coming forth at a time of crisis to help society to make progress! Besides, you were involved in creating this crisis as well!