Red guards and brand fundamentalism

iLook, April 2009

The cover feature of the April issue of iLook magazine (世界都市) is titled "Brand Red Guards and Shanzhai Rebel Groups" (品牌红卫兵和山寨造反团, translated on the cover as "Brand Fundamentalists and Rebels with a Parody").

In her editor's column (translated below), Hung Huang likens the fervor that brands bring with them when they engage the fashion media to Cultural Revolution-era dogmatism. She ties this to the shanzhai phenomenon, in which famous brands and celebrities are knocked-off and parodied.

The actual "brand fundamentalism" that this issue of iLook is apparently parodying (according to Hung's column) may only be visible to fans of fashion magazines, but the magazine includes a few general-interest parodies of its own, in a section titled "Thank God for Photoshop." TV personality and serial autobiographer Yang Erche Namu is featured on the cover of iLook's major competitors.

Here she is as Zhang Ziyi:

Elle vs. Hell

As Zhao Wei:

Bazaar vs. Bizarre

And as Tang Wei:

Vogue vs. Vague

The political references that crop up in the issue's title and in Hung's column don't play much of a role elsewhere in the magazine, except in the title of the Red Chamber interview feature: "Red's Dream Guards" (《红》的梦卫兵).

Brand Red Guards and Shanzhai Rebels

by Hung Huang / iLook

A month ago, I dragged Liu Zhizhi with me to plan a new product launch for a client. I had prepared a list of names, all of which belonged to architects, designers, and artists we were both familiar with. We explained our concept very cooperatively, how through the mouths of our friends we could convey to reporters the conceptual design of the client's product so that they could tell it to the masses. The client was fairly satisfied with the plan. Being able to move forward is, as far as I am concerned, a successful business meeting in which I had proudly sold my friends once again.

Who would have known that Liu Zhizhi would have none of it. We exited, got in the car, and he started yammering:

"Damn, Auntie, how could they treat you like that? They didn't even hold the meeting in a conference room, and they didn't pour any coffee. Squeezed into an office, it was like they were hiring a secretary."

I'm used to this sort of treatment. Marketing directors at foreign companies in China have never had much appreciation for original niche publications like ours, treating us like rich families treat people looking for a handout: you can't be too good to them, or they'll always be coming around and causing trouble. Things are a little better if the marketing director is a foreigner: there'll be a conference room and coffee, offered from the high pedestal of humanity and democracy, of course.

"The SOBs chose a designer to appear at the event like were picking out cabbage! Did you notice? Like those southern girls who prick fruit with their fingernail and only buy it if they draw juice. I was pricked until I was practically sweating, dammit! No concern for the designer at all, just about how he'd promote the product! So damn direct!"

This, I'm used to as well. For these marketing managers, looking for a celebrity and then having that celebrity follow their instructions to guide the public's awareness is sufficient, and they are entirely unconcerned with the stories and ideas of the designers themselves. I've always called these brand managers "International Brand Red Guards" (国际名牌红卫兵). They use the passion and determination with which red guards championed Mao Zedong Thought during the Cultural Revolution to defend the position of international brands in the hearts of the Chinese public. To their minds, international brands have taken the place of the great leader. Their own worth is completely fused into the brand, to the point that many people will talk about the brand's products as if they were members of their own family, and their demands on the media are nothing short of the attitude that Red Guards used to take toward the masses: line up, and if you stand in the wrong line, you get lambasted. But things are much more civilized these days: if you stand in the wrong line, then you're just stripped (of your advertising).

The Red Guard mentality and the sheer capacity to enforce it has brought an exceptional unanimity to China's fashion media:

Unanimous thought — everyone copies the same press release.

Unanimous attitude — visuals use identical ornamentation to extol the "elegance," "superiority," and "stylishness" of luxury goods.

Unanimous action — the New Year in January, love in February, spring and summertime in March, shade in April, thanking mom in May, beach holiday in June, sex appeal in July, anticipating fall and winter in August, fall and winter clothing in September, moisturization in October, fighting wrinkles in November, summing up the year in December, and every single month, losing weight!

If a luxury product company wants to succeed in China, the most effective method is to find a team of Red Guards. Then there are no other concerns: be as relaxed as Bush was when he was president, and even more prestigious than Chairman Mao used to be!

There are of course many of these Red Guards among our clients, and making them happiness is a necessary condition for our survival. So in this issue is a photo series that we did entirely according to the visual standards of the brand. As a salute to all famous brands. In Liu Zhizhi's words, this is "brand fundamentalism," the same as bin Laden: either believe, or go to hell.

Initially, this issue was titled "brand fundamentalism," for no other reason than to do the ass-kissing right. But this got off-track at the story meeting and unintentionally headed in a shanzhai direction. Yet when you think about it, shanzhai and brand fundamentalism are twin brothers; only with the fanaticism of fundamentalism do you get the shanzhai phenomenon. China has two types of shanzhai. One is a purely commercial behavior, unsophisticated and aimed at making money. The other is egao, parody, the ridicule of brand culture. The latter is quite interesting, naturally, and can be sophisticated, satisfying, and stunning if done right! So, with shanzhai not yet a crime, we really let loose this issue and gave the shanzhai treatment to the big three (Vogue, Elle, and Bazaar). Yang Erche Namu makes a special appearance as the cover girl.

Yet within the brand jungle, tiny mushrooms of originality are growing healthily. In this issue's Monitor column, we give you a special introduction to eight designers who have emigrated to Shanghai from France. They may be unknowns at the moment, and may not yet be rich, but they are working happily as they persevere in their creative work, and this is indeed valuable.

The cover of this issue features Baoyu, Baochai, and Daiyu from Li Shaohong's new Dream of the Red Chamber. I originally wanted to emulate the cover of Vanity Fair and shoot them nude, but after three discussions with the film crew I had to give that up. Thinking about it now, yeah, the issue offends our clients and our colleagues, and if it ended up offending red fans somehow, we'd have nothing to live for.

Still, I believe that Red Guards and colleagues alike have sense of humor. And ultimately, we're mocking ourselves, in that we originally wanted to be fundamentalists yet ended up in mountain fortress on Mt. Liang! Just like the Chinese master of comedy we shot in this issue: he's mocked countless people, particularly himself. So forgive us for the visual joke we've given to you in this "fool's month."

After writing this wordy editor's note, I went browsing online. I ended up finding that the April issue of the US Vanity Fair also used shanzhai techniques to parody its most famous cover of the the past few years. That was the nude cover that we had originally wanted to imitate! How ironic — I though we'd escaped unanimity, and then the impossible happens!

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Comments on Red guards and brand fundamentalism

Is there any talk about the international quality of egao culture? I can't believe they'd pass off satire as an original Chinese invention; or perhaps that's the joke, shanzhai satire. The Greeks will collect royalties on it about the same time the Indians collect royalties on their invention of zero.

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