updated 12:40 am EDT, Tue March 19, 2013
Celebrities bashing iPhone maker accidentally reveal state-run ruse
An attempt by China Central Television (CCTV) to paint Apple and Volkswagen in a bad light through a celebrity-driven Sina Weibo campaign has backfired badly on the state-run media outlet after one of the celebrities posting an "Apple-bashing" post accidentally included an instruction on when to post from the TV station alongside his prepared talking point. This prompted observant citizens to notice that a raft of celebrities had posted similar messages and posted around the same time, prompting ridicule from Weibo users.
Weibo could be considered the Facebook and Twitter of China, with nearly 400 million users. On March 15, a "Consumer Rights Day" broadcast that included accusations that Apple was "biased against Chinese consumers in its warranty and customer service policies" and that Volkswagen cars had rough gear-shifting due to a supposedly faulty Direct Shift gearbox aired on the state-run channel, inviting various celebrities to live-post from the show.
Shortly afterwards, celebrities began posting similar "testimonials" amplifying the program's claims along with the hashtag "#315onthemove," a reference to the TV show. The post often mentioned -- incorrectly -- that Apple products include a two-year warranty in the US but only a one-year warranty in China as part of the attack.
One of the celebrities named Peter Ho posted what was a typical example: he wrote "cannot believe Apple is playing so many dirty tricks in customer service. As an Apple fan, I feel hurt. Won’t you [Apple] feel ashamed in front of Steve Jobs? Won’t you feel ashamed in front of those young people who sell their kidneys for your products? You dare to bully consumers simply because you are a famous brand. Need to send out at about 8:20 pm."
The latter sentence was reported by other Chinese media outlets as being part of the instructions for the talking point campaign, and quick-witted users quickly worked out that other figures on the TV show and elsewhere had posted similar posts all around the same time. The celebrities were likely paid for their posts, and the scandal spread quickly on Weibo and other Chinese media outlets even after the personalities deleted their posts, claimed they had been hacked, and the Weibo service began deleting "tens of thousands" of critical comments.
Ironically, as OffBeatChina points out, all of the posts were in fact sent from Apple devices, which are gaining in popularity in China. The orchestrated posts revealed a coordinated social-media campaign run by the state, with critical posts adopting the hashtag "#PostAround820" as a sarcastic response. "Would the all-powerful CCTV please tell us which brands haven't discriminated against the people of this Heavenly Kingdom? Post around 8:20" one user wrote as a reply.
The incident has grown into a public-relations nightmare for the celebrities, CCTV and Sina Weibo, all of whom are accused of attempting to cover up what happened and suppress critical response. The Wall Street Journal noted that the scandal has increased mistrust of the country's state-run media outlets, particularly among those with Internet access, many of whom have found ways around the "Great Firewall of China" to gain access to outside information.
The Journal reported that Chinese media is frequently caught engaging in corruption, producing stories that aren't factual and often dictated by either financial interests or political party directives -- seemingly unaware that this also happens in the US -- and noted that "CCTV has been particularly aggressive in its annual Consumer Rights Day reports, including last when it slammed McDonald's with damaging allegation that the fast food giant sold food that servers had dropped on the floor."
Apple has been slowly gaining share against both Android competitors and state-sanctioned local smartphone manufacturers that run their own customized platforms in the smartphone market in China, and may well receive a boost now -- thanks to the backfire of a coordinated state campaign against the iPhone maker. The scandal is also likely to strain relations between Chinese officials and Apple, which has worked hard to tailor its products and marketing to China, since the region is a major growth market and also the home of Apple's manufacturing partners.
It is unknown if the campaign was organized by the government or the TV station itself -- which is rumored to have been trying to persuade Apple to advertise and could have concocted the report as a form of blackmail -- or was simply the result of bribery by one of Apple's competitors. The company has made significant inroads in China and sees strong response at its stores as well as enormous increases in growth in sales for its products over the past two years.
The iPhone 5 finally arrived in China on the second- and third-largest carriers in mid-December, far behind most other major countries even in the Pacific Rim region. To date, the largest provider -- China Mobile -- has still not finalized a deal with Apple, in part due to technical difficulties with its proprietary version of LTE cellular data.