One Star Fits All

China First Capital blog post

Imagine a world of where every product had a single celebrity endorser. The same star would advertise on behalf of car companies, detergent, liquor, travel. Sound implausible? Welcome to the world of Chinese celebrity product endorsement, where kungfu star Jackie Chan is such a fixture of product advertising, both commercials and billboards, that no one knows for certain how many different brands he advertises.

With the help of a friend, I recently compiled a list of 16 companies Jackie Chan now shills for. There are certainly others. The list includes some brands familiar to Western audiences, like Mitsubishi Motors and Canon EOS cameras. But, most of the products are ones targeting China’s domestic market. These include a dumpling company, an air-conditioner manufacturer, an anti-baldness shampoo, green tea bags, and a laundry detergent. During the broadcast of the 2012 London Olympics, Jackie Chan-fronted commercials got far more tv time in China than Michael Phelps or any Chinese medal winner .

In the US and Europe, the generally held view is that a celebrity should endorse only one product.  Endorsement contracts usually specify this. Once a brand pays out a lot of money to get a celebrity, they don’t want that investment squandered, in part, by the same celebrity pitching for another product, even an unrelated one.

So, Robert DeNiro has appeared in American Express advertising, and nowhere else. Jennifer Aniston pitches L’Oreal shampoo, and that’s it. For awhile, golfer Tiger Woods was the one notable exception to this rule of promotional monogamy, promoting several different products at once. His marital philandering brought an end to his endorsement philandering. Every big brand but Nike has dropped him.

But, Jackie Chan in China is an advertising law unto himself. He is, without question, the most visible man in China, a wall-to-wall presence in people’s lives. The only face Chinese seen more often is Mao Zedong, whose portrait is on every banknote circulated in the country.

Simply understood, in today’s consumer market in China, paper with Mao’s face buys products with Jacky Chan’s on it.

Unlike Mao, Jacky Chan’s popularity and ubiquity in China are both a little beyond the scope of my comprehension. Start with the fact Jacky Chan is from Hong Kong, not the Chinese mainland, and his clunky Mandarin betrays that fact. Kungfu movies aren’t particularly popular in today’s China. At 58, he’s hardly a matinee idol. Most of his film work these days is in English, like the recent remake of “The Karate Kid” and “Kungfu Panda”.

China has plenty of home-grown stars. Two of them, the actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, also do a lot of product endorsements. These two share a key attribute that makes Jackie Chan valuable as a pitchman: they’ve achieved fame outside China.

These three are in a class by themselves among celebrity endorsers in China, precisely because they are the only three with real name recognition outside the country. If you want to be a truly big star in China, become even a minor one in the US.

Most of the products endorsed by Jackie Chan are sold only in China. Some, like Cree air-conditioners, among the leading brands. Others, like Fenhuang Cola, are also-rans. Nothing, though, seems to dent his value as a pitcher of products to China’s masses.

All celebrity endorsements are a paid attempt at rub-off glamour. With Jackie Chan, no matter how often that glamour gets rubbed, it never seems to dull.