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Media & Entertainment

When China's massive fan-economy goes wrong

Extreme fan behavior creates a minefield for stars -- and the brands they sell

Xiao Zhan shot to startdom thanks to his role in the hit streaming show "The Untamed." (Screen shot from "The Untamed")

NEW YORK -- Right up to the time when China began putting cities under lockdown to combat the coronavirus outbreak, Xiao Zhan was the country's most sought-after star, endorsing everything from skin care products to beer. By the time the country lifted the shutters months later, Xiao's celebrity status was in tatters and his commercial power hanging by a thread.

Unlike most of what has unfolded over the past two months, Xiao's abrupt reversal of fortunes was not a direct result of the pandemic that started in Wuhan and swept from China through the world. Rather, what has killed Xiao's career is an extreme case of what some call "toxic fans."

China's toxic fandoms emerged from a generation that grew up with material wealth, relentless advertising and social media -- but few outlets for self expression. The result, experts say, is an intimate "parasocial" relationship between fans and their chosen actor, singer or other pop culture idol. Such relationship can easily turn sour, especially when combined with a misjudged government response or a few missteps by a star's management.

Take the case of Xiao. He became a household name almost overnight after his hit streaming show "The Untamed" was released last August. His endorsement deals spanned industries ranging from luxury goods such as Cartier and Gucci to cosmetics like Estee Lauder and Olay to beverages such as Mengniu and Budweiser. Xiao alone took 48% of the endorsement deals in China last year, according to an entertainment industry veteran who asked not to be named.

The brands he backed enjoyed huge sales: Estee Lauder products Xiao pitched sold out within the first hour of their release in 2019, achieving over 40 million yuan in sales, according to Chinese media.

But if Xiao's rise was rapid, his downfall was even faster.

The problem began when some of his more ardent fans, with more time than usual on their hands thanks to widespread lockdowns, began to act up.

His show "The Untamed" was based on a "boy love," or BL, online novel, but like all shows in China, the homosexual content was stripped out when it was adapted for streaming and the central relationship recast as one of "friendship" between the two leading men.

In February, a group of hardcore "Xiao only" fans reported the fan-created website Archive of Our Own, or AO3, to authorities for hosting fanfiction featuring a queer take on the actor.

In response, authorities blocked the website in China, but that only triggered widespread anger toward Xiao for not "reining in" his fans. An online campaign was swiftly organized to boycott the brands he endorsed, dubbed the "227 Movement" for the date it started, and the "227" hashtag soon garnered over 570 million clicks on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

Brands such as Estee Lauder, Qeelin and Mengniu changed ambassadors immediately to minimize the damage. Skincare giant Olay, however, stuck with Xiao -- and soon paid the price.

"227" participants started flooding Olay's customer service line demanding receipts for products they had purchased weeks or months ago.

This action is based on the Chinese tax law that customers have the right to ask for replacement receipts no matter how long after the purchase. If Olay did not give them the receipts, they would report the company to Chinese authorities. Olay had already been called to the appropriate government agency for questioning, according to Chinese media.

"Fans demanding replacement receipts would not actually accomplish anything except that it adds more workload for the accountants and financial folks. It's an alternative and petty way to put pressure on the company," said Taizi, an analyst of China's fan-economy at Film Intelligence, a Chinese market research group. "Reporting to authorities has become a common way for fans to sabotage a celebrity nowadays. It's not right and should not be encouraged."

Neither Olay nor Estee Lauder responded to Nikkei's request for comment, and Mengniu declined to comment. Both cosmetics giants reported a significant sales impact from the coronavirus outbreak. Estee Lauder's net sales growth in China turned negative in February, while Olay parent P&G reported just 1% sales growth in its beauty segment for January-March due to the "temporary disruption of retail markets" in China and rapid decline in travel retail sales.

Amber, a 28-year-old graduate student and BL author who declined to give her last name, is one of those upset by the actions of Xiao's fans. "AO3 is a very precious existence for us," she said. "Blocking it angers me and makes me wonder if a celebrity's fans can make any website disappear like this."

If Xiao's career is ruined, she added, it would be a warning to all fans to think twice before they act out of line.

"China's fan culture is like a cult, they're controlled like a military and they have a lot of cash. Once fans are brainwashed, it's like groupthink. They're not allowed to have a different opinion," she said.

Given the volatile nature of fandom in China, celebrities' management teams usually hire "professional fans" to keep their fan base in line, lead fan activities and manage general sentiment, according to Taizi. These professional fans usually come from so-called VIP fans who already have some following in the circle, and they are put in charge of communication between the management team and the ordinary fans.

"It's a delicate relationship between the celebrity, management, professional fans, VIP fans and regular fans," Taizi said. "It's complicated because professional fans and VIP fans are not machines, they have their own desires and chain of interests. ... But they're seen as one group, if any one department makes a mistake, the celebrity is responsible in the public's eyes."

Xiao has found that out the hard way.

One reason fandom in China is so fickle is down to age. Generation Z fans have grown up with the internet and "advertising dollars" largely driving what they see in the media, according to Mark Young, entertainment business professor at the University of Southern California. Social media, meanwhile, helps them feel closer -- and thus more emotionally attached -- to their idols.

And in the case of China, it is even more complicated.

Since former President Deng Xiaoping opened up China's economy, "it unleashed all of this pent up energy, frustration and creativity to allow China to zoom full with building the kind of economy that we saw and we still see," Young said.

A certain relaxation of social norms allowed more cultural exchanges and the rapid development of China's own entertainment industry, he added, providing an outlet for "pent-up energy" in a country where people cannot freely comment on politics, officials, religion, social issues or even current events.

Aynne Kokas, Chinese film researcher and media studies professor at the University of Virginia, likewise sees fan activities -- including the attack on AO3 -- as an means of expression when other options are limited. "I think people are reaching out to try to find some way to express [themselves]. ... It's a prevailing overall frustration that emerges through the media landscape," she said. "Fandom has been one form of agency... People feel that they want to reach out and demand things from their government."

For retail companies trying to build a loyal following in China, the country's unique political climate and fan culture have created a minefield they are struggling to navigate. Because stars in recent years often have short shelf lives, companies have reduced the duration of endorsement deals and sign several ambassadors at once, according to an entertainment industry veteran.

Taizi, of the research company, noted that companies must now be even more selective in choosing their ambassadors. "When brands did risk assessments before, they only needed to focus on a celebrity's own negative press," Taizi said. "From now on, they also have to include a celebrity team's crisis management capability and fans management competency."

That risk assessment could even extend to looking at the kind of fanfiction being written about their clients, said Young.

But while Xiao's commercial prospects might be dimming, his patriotic persona could yet fuel a comeback.

State newspapers, not known for commenting on pop culture going ons, have weighed in on the controversy surrounding Xiao, generally taking the beleaguered star's side. The Beijing News urged fans to come to their senses, while the Procuratorial Daily, which normally covers legal issues, devoted its entire front page to what it called "a war without victors."

Such tacit support could prove useful in engineering a comeback.

More than a month after the uproar started, Xiao finally broke his silence with news of a new project. In mid-April, his company posted on Weibo about his participation in a state media campaign called "Beautiful China," singing a folk song from his hometown of Chongqing.

The song, "Hong Mei Zan," is also a well-known patriotic tune, and Xiao's performance has been well-received, with over 1.72 billion positive posts on Weibo.

With his patriotic persona, Xiao clearly knows how to please the party. The question is whether he can convince global companies to take a chance on him -- and his fickle fans -- again.

Nikkei staff writer Nikki Sun in Hong Kong contributed to this report

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