Advertising and Marketing

Incest, beauty standards, and manipulating public opinion


Jiang Wenli's "incestuous" ad for the Maxam line of skin-care products has had the Chinese media buzzing for the last week (see notes on ESWN and China Daily, or the ad itself on YouTube).

Opinion pieces in newspapers across the country have asked important questions like "Has it crossed the line of acceptable social standards?" and have given valuable suggestions like "What can be said at home might not be appropriate to say on TV."

Commentators have remarked that Jiang shoots too many commercials as it is, that she's a bad mother for not correcting her son when he talked about marrying her, and that she really has no business shilling for a cosmetics company after winning over fans with her makeupless performance in A Chinese-Style Divorce.

Other reactions have been more understanding, although not quite the sort of defense that Jiang may have wanted. In today's Wenzhou Daily, a commentary titled "Don't think that you don't have an Oedipus complex" casts the ad as a reflection of normal, Freudian psychological development:

So we can say that an Oedipus complex is nothing shameful. On the contrary, love for one's mother plays an extremely active role in an individual's healthy psychological development. If a boy does not love his mother, in the future he will not know what kind of spouse to find, and in serious cases this may even lead to homosexuality. If a boy does not want to "kill his father," he won't seek to take over his father's position or continue the family business, and he won't learn from or imitate his father. In the future he quite probably will not be very masculine, and in serious cases he may undergo a sex-change operation.

Or perhaps it's all just a storm in a teapot. Lu Pin, a frequent commentator in China Women's News, says that incest isn't the real issue here; it's just being exploited as a tool to win influence, while the false promises of the ad - "Maxam cosmetics will keep your mother young forever" - are being overlooked. Here's Lu's piece in last week's Southern Metropolis Weekly (which identifies her only as "feminist"):

The trap of the "incest" ad

by Lu Pin / SMW

The cosmetics ad starring Jiang Wenli that has a son wanting to marry his mother has been a public target the past few days, and the media has recently reported that the ad has been pulled from CCTV-6 because of unhealthy content. The storm surrounding this Jiang Wenli ad is essentially much ado about nothing; it arose out of a post on some forum where the majority of the responding comments took issue with the the original claim, and many commentators and experts also provided explanations for Jiang Wenli. But after the news was broadcast to a wider audience, it immediately stirred up a tide of debate.

In this flap over the so-called "incestuous" advertisement, Jiang Wenli has been treated unfairly; if it hadn't been so close to Golden Week, a slow time for news, when reporters had discovered that "explosive" posting, this storm may not have arisen at all. A famous star plus "incest" - what sensational subject matter - only required a few netizens to exaggerated into a group of netizens to make this a top-grade salacious news item. Such an action at the very least is manufacturing garbage; considered in a larger context, it is counterfeiting public sentiment and holding public opinion hostage. But those involved had no choice but to respond as if it were genuine, while those who had sparked the affair stood innocently on the sidelines. Commentators have already begun using this to criticize online public opinion for its ethical proclivities, but compared to the media, which worked both ends of the affair, the Internet may just be a scapegoat.

Another interesting character is CCTV. That institution once again showed off its cluelessness: never having cared a whit for public opinion in the past, this time, to ensure that it is completely blameless during ethical investigations and self-inspections, it threw away advertising revenue from a commercial and disregarded the fair protection of those involved. Its actions are in no way responsible; they are simply utilitarian, a rush to make sure that its own house is clean. Only by waving the cudgel of ethics throughout the entire "incest" flap and increasing its own power could CCTV thoroughly weaken Jiang Wenli and the cosmetics company; regardless of public opinion, if it was involved with a stronger party, then right and wrong wouldn't enter into the picture.

So we get a glimpse of the characteristics of power in China: on the one hand, economic power is growing rapidly, but on the other, economic power is still subject to strict limitations by other powers that have no rules, including an undisciplined media that fanned the flames during this episode and fell far short of fair, honest investigation and opportunities for understanding. And the power of the people, situated on the lowest rung, is always at risk of being manipulated or stirred up; one wonders whether it hasn't already been turned into something else.

Returning to that advertisement: the problem with it is not "incest", of course, but rather that the myth of skin care products keeping women young forever has once again broadcast misleading ideas about women's worth; what comes out of the young boy's mouth is actually the logic of the adult world: men will only want you if you are young and beautiful. Transforming a relationship between a man and a woman to one between a mother and son, packaging beauty standards in warm affections - the novelty of the advertisement makes it an even cleverer trap. However, this kind of criticism of gender roles in society probably won't find an audience since our social ethics to a large degree still lack sensitivity toward gender equality.

(When this article was submitted, news reports said that this commercial was not pulled and was still showing on TV, though some sociologists were still pushing for it to be banned. Whatever the fate of this ad, we can see from the debate it raised that the cudgel of ethics often falls on the wrong target; the trap in this commercial does not lie in its promotion of "incest," but rather that it suggests a value system of "gender inequality.")

Links and Sources
There are currently 5 Comments for Incest, beauty standards, and manipulating public opinion.

Comments on Incest, beauty standards, and manipulating public opinion

Just curious, but looking at the original Chinese article on Southern Metropolis Weekly I noticed 女性主义者 which I reckon translates as something like 'female opinion columnist.' So my question is, if Lu Pin were a man, would it say 男性主义者 or is it just unusual for women to have opinions these days?

[EDITOR'S NOTE (JDM): 女性主义 is "feminism"; 女性主义者 is "feminist"]

The advert is innocuous, a fact recognised by many Chinese netizens. The post got simply over-emphasized by local media.
If I were the client I would be very, very pissed off with CCTV for pulling the advert. But there's nothing you can do against that behemoth. So, at this point, as a company/corporation, if you are damaged by such a harmless advert because some prudish idiot publishes a post on a popular forum that gets picked up by local media, what are you supposed to do? It is interesting to see how local laws and regulations are going to deal with this problem...

I see nothing whatsoever wrong with advert.
Obviously, the boy needs to kill his father first to achieve his laudable ambition.

Sigh... The tag line at the end of the ad is not claiming the product will allow mum to never grow old, it is alluding to the thoughts/ wishes of the child, this is called a consumer insight.

And the whole incest argument is just not worth wasting breath on.

Media in China is like a high (maybe even primary) school newspaper, looks like the real thing but...

what a larf! What boy, in any culture, hasn't said he wants to marry his mother, particulary at that age?

Lu Pin's more cynical criticism of the advert is interesting, and may well stand upon scrutiny, but anyone condemning this advert for 'incest' is simply barking.

It's especially noteworthy that there is domestic Chinese criticism over the mother-son angle, as Chinese culture is notorious for its momma's boy phenomenon, on both sides of the straits.

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives