Can ‘Sex Sell’ in China?


In the current media climate in China, with increasing levels of censorship – you would expect ‘sex’ has fallen off the radar as a marketing device.  However, used in the right way, the old rule still holds here as well – sex sells.

This year has seen a new rules to curb media content focussed on ‘promiscuous’ behaviour.  Earlier in the year, there were specific warnings about online TV shows focussed on same-sex relationships.  Also earlier this week, online videos of young women suggestively eating bananas was banned – creating some quite hilarious discussion amongst netizens on “what the next fruit will be”.

However, 2015 was quite a sexy year for China

First a young couple got intimate in a Uniqlo changing room with the footage of their out-of-home romp going viral on the local web.   Couples then started taking “sex selfies” in front of the Beijing store in homage of the daring duo.

Then, Fan Bingbing, arguably China’s most popular celebrity, performed a heated sex scene on a horse, in a film based in dynastic times.

While the horse was unharmed, there was quite a stir on the internet once again, with many netizens showing almost grave concern for Fan’s boyfriend’s feelings after the scene went public.

But importantly, Fan was not sanctioned for the scene, suggesting that the lines of expression have loosened.  A similar scene by Chinese actress Tang Wei, in Ang Lee’s Lust Caution back in 2006, was deliberately made an example of by authorities.

More generally, we are seeing a lot more skin and bums in Chinese advertising as brands sense the opportunity that the oldest marketing truth – “sex sells” – is finally viable in the Middle Kingdom.

In a recent example, American brand Tyson cheekily launched their marinated chicken packs with male heartthrob Gu Youming flaunting his upper body in huge outdoor ads – cleverly playing off the associations created by the Chinese term “fresh meat”, slang for attractive young men.

Of course sex is topical here in China

But the idea that Chinese consumers are interested in sex is hardly a surprise. China’s ancient history is full of orgy and concubine heroines.  Even in the throws of the Cultural Revolution, the birth rate was the highest in human history, providing the basis for the One Child Policy.

Once Deng opened the economy, the return of commercial sexual culture was rapid, seen in the form of KTVs, massage parlors and sex shops which are still regular real-estate on modern Chinese streets.

Looking at it culturally, there is nothing to suggest that Chinese culture is in anyway antithetical to sex.   Like Japan, arguably the nation most culturally proximate to China, there is no religious or philosophical rejection of sex on moral grounds.

In comparison to Christianity, where sex was termed evil from the day Adam and Eve eloped, there is no moral judgment against sex, merely a political one.

The best example of this philosophical standpoint is a memory I have of reading a Chinese newspaper when I was a student in the early 1990s.   One particular edition around Chinese New Year featured a cartoon of prostitutes taking planes rather than trains from the big city back to their families for the holiday.  The caption read “Progress”, with no sarcasm intended.

However we are now seeing the Chinese middle class looking to claim sexual culture for themselves as part of a new modern lifestyle they are cultivating.

Sex is being taken from the margins, from the migrants, and placed more firmly as part of the modern urban lifestyle.   This is part of an emergent middle class identity defining itself more confidently and openly.


Rise in “ab selfies” on Weibo and other channels

Social media is increasingly full of ‘ab selfies’ as the local enthusiasm for fitness is taking an increasingly sensuous and flirtatious direction.

The government certainly will not mind this as there is nothing more destabilizing than a sexually frustrated middle class.

In a context where the search for compatible partners is super competitive, there are plenty of Chinese urbanites wanting to spice up their selfies and overall personal branding.

Providing the cues are racy popular music videos from South Korea, where boy and girl bands pelt and pop in highly suggestive ways.   Breast surgery and male grooming are booming like nowhere else, suggesting Chinese are investing heavily in being sexy.

Take for instance, beer, a category that has shamelessly leveraged sex and sex appeal to a celebrated level.  In China, to date, brands have rarely broached the theme of sex, preferring to play it safe with prosaic product descriptions and generic “fun time” moments.

Not a hint of the flirtation, intrigue or fun you would expect elsewhere.   For both male and female drinkers, some level of sexual innuendo would be an instant differentiator in a bizarrely straight laced category.

So, moral of the story, you can use sex to sell, just be strategic

So for brands, the opportunity to create a little buzz by being a bit more sexy, is a legitimate marketing approach.  One brand that has done this successfully in China is, Durex.

This is not about creating sexualized content, it has been more about broaching the topic in a fresh and entertaining way.  Most recently, the brand broadcast a live event that cheekily provided clues on how couples spend their private time together.

It is not about being pornographic, it is simply doing what Salt-N-Pepa espoused all those years ago “Lets talk about sex baby” – if you do, your Chinese consumers will love you for it, because they are already talking about it, with or without you.

About Author

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing leading-edge research, strategy and naming for brands in China using bespoke methodologies. Jerry also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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