For brands operating in China’s vast and complex social media landscape, one thing that can’t be avoided is the government’s almost pathological tendency to censor content.
Generating a marketing campaign that gets China’s 600 million online population talking about your brand can have dire consequences – if you get it wrong. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all been banned by the authorities and LinkedIn’s new Beta platform, launched in China last month, has had to agree to government restrictions to gain a licence to operate.
Whilst brands may be able to monitor their own content, they don’t have much control over what people say once their message is out there. Many popular brands use well-known Chinese celebrities to promote their products and these Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) can also get on the wrong side of government restrictions that can often seem as confusing as they are censorial.
Actress Yao Chen, the face of Tourism New Zealand in China, became entangled in a political protest when she quoted Solzhenitsyn to her 33 million Sina Weibo followers in support of freedom of the press. The quote: One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world, didn’t sit well with the government censors.
To some, China’s censorship can seem complicated and often random.
“Last year, TV regulators restricted popular genres such as dating, variety and talent shows as part of a crackdown on “overly entertaining” programming. They also banned commercials during dramas, one of the most popular formats in China. No explanation was given for the rules and ad prices soared as supplies decreased overnight.” Anita Chang Beattie, Ad Age (http://adage.com/article/global-news/censorship-china-media-marketers/239187/)
Of more concern to Western brands may be the ever changing list of government censored words and phrases ranging from the “Dalai Lama” and “evolution” to “instant noodles”. It may sound strange to the outside world, but there is reasoning behind these bans, mostly to do with the desire to reduce dissent.
Banning of words can often happen swiftly and without warning but they can also be reinstated just as quickly and mysteriously. In 2012 it was reported that the word Ferrari was banned following the death of a son of an ex-aide to the former Chinese President Hu Jintao. In February this year a similar thing happened with another Ferarri belonging to yet another member of China’s young elite.
Luxury brands, for so long the success story for Western endeavours in China, haven’t been exempt from government bans either. In 2013 there was a blanket ban on advertising for those who promote “incorrect values and help create a bad social ethos”.
The Jing Daily quoted at the time: “As such, radio and television stations have been ordered to pull any advertisements that promote extravagant gift-giving — i.e., “waste” — for items such as high-end watches, rare stamps and gold coins.”
This followed on from a ban of advertising in outdoor spaces that promoted “hedonistic or high-end lifestyles”. Fortunately for luxury brands, this ban did not extend to digital platforms where most of their affluent fans do their shopping.
While brands can often be caught unawares by Chinese censorship, there is still hope that the rise of social media and the increased use of smartphones is going someway to devalue the government’s attempts to control what its people see and say.
In the meantime, brands need to have one eye on current censorship trends if they want to avoid wasting their marketing budget on campaigns that don’t pass an often inscrutable set of censorship rules.