In the West, celebrity spokespeople need to worry about their bad behavior, lest they lose their endorsement deals. In China, celebrities need to start worrying about the things they're endorsing.
Prompted by a slew of food safety scandals, the Chinese parliament has passed a sweeping food safety law that makes liable public personalities who endorse questionable products.
Redefining the Meaning of "Eating Problem"
This isn't China's first backlash against celebrity endorsements. In 2007 laws were passed banning healthcare professionals and public figures like movie stars or pop singers from appearing in advertisements for drugs or nutritional supplements. A spokesperson stated at the time: "A celebrity appearing in drug advertising is more likely to mislead consumers, therefore, the state must consider controlling medical advertisements and strengthen the management of national celebrities appearing in medical advertisements."
But as with many laws and central government efforts, the law wasn't followed by all television stations. "According to some medical advertisements still on TV," reported Xinhua, "people might have slim figures by taking a pair of shoes or a pair of trousers, or wash off their freckle with certain cleanser. The advertisements even claim that the cleanser could wash off the color of gold fish."
Personal lawsuits have also become a common, if ineffective, tool to protest celebrity endorsements. Last year, a Beijing resident sued film director Feng Xiaogang over advertisements he did for a new "luxury" housing development in Beijing. The resident discovered that his new apartment in the complex was not exactly "the successful person's choice," as Feng had claimed on TV. As Danwei reported, the suit rejected his claims.
Celebrities are only the sexiest aspect of the food safety problem: inefficient and ineffective regulation, governed by a mix of regulatory bodies. Given China's 200 million farmers and 500,000 food production companies, preventing accidents will require more transparency, wide scrutiny and stronger enforcement.
No stranger to the topic, Feng Xiaogang recently argued as much at a panel discussion before the annual meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), of which he is a member, according to Xinhua.
"If stars should shoulder joint liability, then quality inspection agencies and media which publicize the ads should be held liable, too," said the outspoken director, who directed "The Banquet" and "The Assembly".
Feng said most stars would ask for quality safe certification before agreeing to recommend the products. "If we cannot trust certification from the authorities, who can we trust?"
In response, Zhang Ming, secretary-general of the Beijing Consumer Association, said that if celebrities are worried about liability, they should simply stop endorsing products.
The celebrity endorsement is a staple of advertising on late night Chinese television, magazines, newspapers and billboards. Celebrity-backed products are thought to be an attractive status symbol amongst China's growing consumer class. Nearly half of China's prized youth demographic say they like celebrity endorsements, according to a recent study by UPS.
The new law was passed after several Chinese stars took heavy criticism — and were threatened with lawsuits — for advertising products of the Sanlu Group, the company at the epicenter of last year's milk contamination scandal. Six babies died and nearly 300,000 others were sickened by melamine tained milk. Other safety scandals that struck last year featured duck eggs laced with melamine and a chilli sauce that contained poisonous additives.
In 2007, China executed the former head of State Food and Drug Administration Zheng Xiaoyu was executed in 2007 for taking bribes in exchange for product safety licenses.
The new celebrity-liability initiative is another interesting idea that probably wouldn't get much traction in the US or Europe, at least not legally. Although, as Don't Panic writes, perhaps we should think harder about that.
And People Power
Whatever direct impacts it will have, the ongoing discussions over food safety and the new law, which goes into effect on June 1, has already generated one important dividend: greater public awareness.
"The heated debates will definitely grab the public's attention," said Hou Xinyi, a law professor at Nankai University in Tianjin and a member of the parliamentary CPPCC. "Then they will use it as a tool to ensure food safety."