When China’s Internet Memes Become Marketing Tools
What’s on Weibo gives a peek into a selection of trending topics on China’s biggest social media website: Sina Weibo. What’s on Weibo explains what is trending and why this is, giving the background story on foreground news.
“Do You Know Who My Dad Is?” From Weibo Trend to Catch Phrase
In June, 2014, the sentence “Do you know who my dad is?” (你知道我爸是谁阿) became a trending topic on Weibo. The story behind the trend leads back to an incident that enraged netizens over the past month. The incident took place in an exam room in Fuxin, China, on June 8. During the college entrance exam.
High school teacher Wang noticed how one student was cheating on his exam by checking his mobile phone. When the teacher called out to him, the student rushed forward and assaulted the teacher while screaming out “You know who my dad is?! You still want to check me?”
Since the student drove a BMW to the school, Weibo netizens collectively talked about the student being the son of a rich family, belonging to the so-called fu’erdai (富二代): the children of entrepreneurs who became wealthy under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s (similarly, there is the term guan’erdai 官二代, referring to children of officials).
The online reactions to the Fuxin news demonstrate that many Chinese have had their fill of the arrogant and conceited behaviour that is displayed by some children of rich entrepreneurs or officials. The sentence “Do you know who my dad is?” represents an attitude amongst rich youngsters who think they are invincible because of their parents’ status. This attitude is connected to fraud and corruption – a painful spot within Chinese society.
A cartoon shared on social media, saying: “My dad is the head of a department!” “My dad is section chief!” “My dad is bureau chief!” “My dad is chairman!”:
Internet memes in China
‘Internet memes’ are online phenomena that rapidly become well known amongst Internet users, either because they are well liked or scandalous. These phenomena are often imitated, modified and used in jokes, adding to the popularity of the original idea (Bauckhage 2011, 1). Memes are popular by nature, and whatever is ‘popular’ is commercial and marketable. For China, memes are an especially important marketing tool for two major reasons.
First, they reach a huge audience. There currently are 618 million Internet users, and 91% of them are social media users (Simcott 2014; Peterson 2014). Memes reach people through email, social networking sites, forums, instant messaging etc. Because memes ‘go viral’ in all corners of the Internet, they reach a great deal of these 618 million Chinese netizens; meaning that many people will be familiar with the meme once it is used in a marketing campaign.
Second, memes often strike a social and cultural chord, making certain memes only popular in specific countries – they become part of the nation’s collective experience and memory. By using a nation’s popular meme for marketing purposes, the brand becomes part of the cultural and social ‘us’ that is interwoven with the meme’s understanding.
The ‘do you know who my dad is’ catchphrase brings back memories of the Li Gang Incident of 2010. The 22-year-old Li Qiming was drunk driving when he ran down two college students on the campus of Hebei University in 2010, killing one of them. When he was arrested after leaving the scene of the accident, he yelled: “Sue me if you dare! My Dad is Li Gang!” (“我爸是李刚”) Li Gang was the deputy director of the local public security bureau (Xiao 2011, 54). “My Dad is Li Gang” instantly became a popular Internet meme in China.
An earlier example comes from 2009, although the social setting is different. It concerns the catchphrase “Jia Junpeng, your mum wants you to come home for dinner” (“贾君鹏你妈妈喊你回家吃饭”). This sentence was placed by an anonymous user on a Baidu discussion forum themed around the game World of Warcraft in July 2009.
The message got 3000 responses within five hours, and later led to people photoshopping images around it, leading to a hyped story about a mother waiting for her son to come home from playing games in an Internet bar (Knowyourmeme; Yang 2009). As Yang states: “Jia Junpeng became a household word in Chinese cyberspace overnight” (2009).
Chinese Internet culture meets marketing
The catchphrases that sprout from the incidents as described were successfully used for marketing purposes. The Chinese website mop.com launched an online contest in 2010, asking netizens to place the sentence ‘my dad is Li Gang’ into classical Chinese poems. The contest became popular, gaining thousands of entries (Xiao 2011, 54).
The Bureau of Transport in Liuzhou, a city in Guangxi, developed road signs saying: “Dear friends, please drive slowly. Your father is not Li Gang.” In contrast, one Chinese company developed car stickers saying “My dad is Li Gang’.
The sentence ‘Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to come home for dinner’ was also used by different companies in various ways. China Mobile changed the sentence to: “Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to buy a phone card”.
A myriad of restaurant chains used the sentence to promote their food: “Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to eat our dumplings”. A chain of English schools adjusted the sentence to: “Jia Junpeng, you mum asks you to learn English”. One hospital used the meme to convince people to donate their blood: “Your mothers asks you to come and donate blood.”
The timing of companies using these memes to their advantage is crucial; those who are too late are out of fashion, those who are first become an internet trend themselves. The real estate developer that was early in adapting the Jia Junpeng sentence became a news item. It put up banners across the city roughly saying: “Jia Junpeng, your mothers asks you to buy this house”; the housing project became famous by doing so.
It will only be a matter of time before companies jump at the opportunity to use ‘Do you know who my dad is?’ to their advantage. Otherwise, there is no rush – there will be another meme popping up the Internet tomorrow.
Bauckhage, Christian. 2011. “Insights into Internet Memes.”
Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM) 2011, July 17–21, Barcelona, Spain. The AAAI Press Menlo Park, CA, USA, pp. 42-49.
Knowyourmeme. 2014. “Jia Jun Peng, your mother wants you to come home for dinner!” Know your Meme (Accessed Online June 11, 2014).
Peterson, Andrea. 2014. “China has almost twice as many Internet users as the U.S. has people.” Washington Post (Jan 31) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/01/31/china-has-almost-twice-as-many-internet-users-as-the-u-s-has-people/ (Accessed Online June 12, 2014).
Simcott, Richard. 2014. “Social Media Fast Facts: China.” Social Media Today (Feb 27) (Accessed June 12, 2014).
Yang Guobin. 2009. “The Curious Case of Jia Junpeng, or The Power of Symbolic Appropriation in Chinese Cyberspace.” The China Beat (October 20) (Accessed Online June 11, 2014).
Xiao Qiang. 2011. “The Battle for the Chinese Internet.” Journal of Democracy 22(2): 47-61.