SK-II Causes Flood of Tears in China with ‘Leftover Women’ Short Film

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China Leftover Women

“It’s making so many single women cry.” (“讓不少單身女性哭了.”) That’s the headline from one Chinese news website about the new “Marriage Market Takeover” short film from Procter & Gamble’s skincare brand (and Cate Blanchett-endorsed) SK-II.

Released on April 6th as a branded entertainment campaign, the four-minute film encourages women to “change their destiny” — in keeping with the brand’s ongoing mission of “empowering women to overcome their limitations and change their destiny” — and not succumb to societal pressure to marry for fear of the social stigma of being labeled as 剩女 (sheng nu) or a “leftover woman.”

The derogatory term has caused an outcry in China is recent years by describing women who have passed the so-called “marrying age” as an unwanted “leftover” in the banquet of love, and thus an embarrassment to their friends and families.

While China’s state-run media has more recently taken the position that the social stigma and phenomenon represents “progress and a turning point in society,” state media helped stigmatize women for years by vigorously promoting lowered standards.

In her book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, author Leta Hong Fincher argues that state propaganda “undermines women’s confidence and prompts many to act against their economic interests when they marry.”

SK-II’s femvertising film pieces together a quilt of videos of Chinese women going through their days: At work. Walking down the street. Sitting alone at the disco. At its core, the film talks about the “marriage markets” for leftover women that have popped up nationwide. Related online videos interview women of different ages about the campaign and broader social pressures at play for Chinese women.

At these outdoor gatherings, parents hang daughters’ marriage resumes in the hope of making a suitable match and landing them a husband. “It’s like you’re selling your daughter,” one video interviewee says. The situation has been exacerbated by the legacy of the one child policy and China’s stress on filiality, where only-child daughters feel pressured to settle for a husband to meet their parents’ expectations.

The video’s climax shows the daughters in the film visiting one of the open-air marriage markets and their posters declaring revolt against the markets’ expectations. The women’s parents, exposed to the raw emotional truth, break down in tears alongside their daughters. (Watch it with tissues.)

SK-II’s phenomenal video is rare in China for its brutal, emotional impact. In this respect, it shares a soul with Dove’s Real Beauty campaign and in particular the gut-punch that was the Dove Real Beauty Sketches video. (That short film ad now has over 66 million views.) SK-II’s Chinese marriage market video has almost 2 million views on YouTube, which is banned in China. On Chinese video networks like Youku, it has millions and millions more views. SK-II’s Weibo post of the video has over 2,000 comments.

For what it’s worth, many Chinese women see SK-II’s ad for what it is. Some of the most up voted comments on SK-II’s Weibo post are self-aware critiques of the ad as an ad and its strategic exaggeration of emotions to trigger a similar response. One commenter notes that only single women who are successful can afford to buy SK-II products, with the other option being reliance on a “有钱的老公,” or “wealthy husband.”

SK-II’s appeal to modern-thinking single women to reject the label of “leftover women” is not purely altruistic. In recent years, the purchasing power of Chinese women has skyrocketed. Not only are women making the majority of a household’s purchasing decisions but their contributions to household income has also grown to represent half of income. Surveys are also showing that Chinese women have an equal consumer confidence as their male peers and are willing to pay more for what they want. “The future is female,” declared a study on Chinese spending by HSBC.

The rise in the Chinese female consumer has been felt by other brands. For example, women now account for nearly 40% of Audi’s sales in China, a nation that is home to two-thirds of the world’s female billionaires.

SK-II’s timing could not be better. “Marriage Market Takeover” and its messages of female independence and self-worth dovetails with two news items sweeping the nation. The first is the high-profile attention to China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, who has been all over state media recently talking about women’s equality.

The second phenomenon is more tragic. Recently the nation has expressed mass outrage over a number of incidents in which men have been caught on camera beating women. In one case that sparked the most outrage, a man was captured on camera attacking a young woman in a hotel hallway while bystanders passed. Combined with the increased economic power of women, incidents like this continue to spark a national discussion about society’s bias, discrimination and the rise of feminism.

Finally, it’s noteworthy that SK-II, while now owned by P&G, was developed and first launched in Japan in 1980. Before there were Chinese 剩女, there were Japanese “Christmas cakes.” The term, in use in the 1980s, called women over the age of 25 as unsellable, unwanted and useless, like a Christmas cake after the 25th of December. Ironically enough, unlocking the economic power of women is now seen as one of Japan’s only hopes for stopping the nation’s decades-long stagnation.

Below, a look back at SK-II’s 2015 #ChangeDestiny campaign, which has more than four million views on YouTube: “She wasn’t born to be a ballet dancer, but Misa Kuranaga chose to #changedestiny. Today, she is Boston Ballet’s first ever Asian principal dancer. SK-II believes in empowering women to overcome their limitations and change their destiny.”

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