Brands Seek to Replace Celebrities with Holograms to Avoid ‘Human Scandals’ in China

Kris Wu performs at the 2018 iHeartRadio MuchMusic Video Awards on Sunday, August 26, 2018
Jess Baumung/Invision/AP

China’s state-run Global Times claimed on Sunday that “industry insiders” are expecting big-name brands to abandon celebrity endorsements and, instead, adopt “virtual idols” – animated holograms – in the near future to avoid personal scandals.

Human endorsements, the Times noted, come with “high legal and moral risks” as brands cannot fully control the behavior of their spokespersons at all times. Virtual idols only behave in the way they are programmed, resulting in no risk of the animation falling into drug use, violence, or other criminal behavior. The state media outlet predicted the shift towards inanimate spokespersons in light of the arrest of Kris Wu, a Chinese-Canadian pop star arrested this week after a Chinese social media influencer accused him of sexual crimes, including statutory rape. Wu formerly served as a producer on the smash hit reality television program The Rap of China, which resulted in several scandals for the Communist Party and prompted a ban on broadcasting “low-taste” rap music on Chinese television in 2018.

Wu is the third prominent Canadian national detained since Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of the giant Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, on charges of violating sanctions on Iran in 2018. The others, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, are facing charges of espionage in Beijing.

China has promoted virtual idols for years as an alternative to human pop stars. In January, the Global Times estimated that hologram pop stars attracted as many as 300 million fans around the world, fueling a million-dollar industry. The state newspaper estimated this week that the industry is worth more than $500 million. The idols perform “concerts” that, prior to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, could fill human concert venues throughout Asia but found renewed usefulness in light of many nations’ inabilities to host mass events like concerts after the virus began spreading in central Wuhan, China.

An unnamed “industry insider” told the state media outlet on Sunday that virtual idols are cheaper and safer for brand-name reputation. The Times noted that Wu had lost at least ten brand endorsements since his arrest, including several Western brands, Porsche and Lancome being two of them.

“There are many uncontrollable factors involving human celebrities nowadays, like the high moral and legal risks,” the anonymous businessperson is quoted as saying. “Also, some of the stars with huge online following want too much money for an endorsement.”

Those already in the virtual idol industry appeared to believe that any support they would receive as a result of celebrity scandals was secondary to the innate appeal of the industry.

“It’s an unstoppable trend in the new digital world: the combination of reality and virtuality,” Chen Yan, the founder of a virtual idol company, said.

Virtual idols began to gain popularity in China in the latter half of the 2010s. By 2017, they had attracted so many millions of fans that the Chinese Communist Party debuted a hologram pop star designed to promote dictator Xi Jinping and his socialist ideology.

Luo Tianyi was popular enough to fill stadiums with fans watching her “perform” before the Communist Party coopted her as a “youth ambassador.” At the time, the Global Times reported that Luo’s job would be to “instill correct thinking into the younger generation with her singing” and “embed hot societal topics and positive values into her songs and spread them to younger generations.”

As with its update this week, the state newspaper praised virtual idols such as Luo because they “won’t yield to any temptation like drugs or get involved in any sex scandals.” Ren Li, who helped develop Luo, claimed that holograms were preferable to real people because they are “different from real-life stars who make their own decisions and do things the way they like, which is hard to control.”

Kris Wu’s arrest follows several years in which, particularly in light of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly strongarmed young celebrities to endorse Beijing’s causes. Its largest campaigns so far began in March and featured pop icons, actors, and other celebrities supporting the use of Uyghur slave labor in western Xinjiang province, a human rights violation fueled in part by what experts believe is the world’s largest concentration camp system.

Wu enjoyed significant fame in China before his dramatic fall last week, the result of the influence of Du Meizhu publishing an accusation on Weibo, China’s largest state-controlled social network, claiming that Wu used his fame and power to lure minors to have sex with him. Wu, 30, has vociferously denied the allegations, but police announced his arrest this weekend. He faces up to life in prison.

The Global Times championed his arrest as “a wake-up call for not only long-beloved idols, but also major powers in the industry that money and resources would never be a license to ensure that you can do whatever you want.”

Wu’s reality program, The Rap of China, debuted as one of the most popular streaming programs in the country in 2017. One of the show’s co-winners, PG One, apologized profusely following his win after social media users began to circulate old songs he had written before his appearance on the program in which he appeared to reference drug use. He appeared to blame black American culture for his prior lyrics, resulting in criticism that he had resorted to racist comments rather than accepting responsibility for his words.

The Rap of China continued to stream online, with Wu as a producer, after its first season, but the Communist Party largely banned hip hop culture, tattoos, and “immoral and vulgar content” from broadcast television shortly thereafter.

China has, nonetheless, continued to attempt to use rap music to promote communism, most recently publishing a 15-minute track featuring 100 rappers to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in June.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


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