Chinese government authorities in Shanghai imposed a fine against the international condom brand Durex over its inappropriate ad in 2019 for 810,000 yuan ($120,620). Chinese media Jiemian reported that the Shanghai Municipal Administration for Market Regulation made the decision in July 2020, but the news did not receive public attention until October 2020.
The advertisement concerned was a joint marketing campaign with two other Chinese brands HeyTea and Taopiaopiao. Social media posts were featured on April 19, 2019, and contained sexually explicit language such as “not missing one drop and getting into that secret corner.”
Those Weibo posts quickly received backlash from the public and the company apologized for the disturbance created at the time.
Durex is one of the most successful companies in social media marketing in China, and its official Weibo has more than 3.2 million followers. This number significantly exceeds those from Durex’s major competitors. Japanese condom brand Okamoto has about 170,000 followers on Weibo. Jissbon, the second-largest condom brand in the world, has about 330,000 followers on the popular Chinese social media.
Durex’s marketing team has demonstrated strong abilities in connecting trending social media stories to the condom brand. While Apple revealed its latest 5G-capable smartphones, Durex came up with the advertising line that stated: 5G can be fast, but you can slow it down.
The advertisement was referring to premature ejaculation, which is a common joke in China among adults. This Weibo post got more than 900,000 likes, with almost 40,000 comments and 15,000 reposts.
When Apple released its iPhone SE in April, Durex also came up with a social media advertisement that reflects on the phone’s budget-smart feature. Its Weibo Post had the following message: Spend a little bit of money, for very important things.
Similar to the general public in many other East Asian countries, Chinese society has a conservative attitude towards sex. Most people tend to avoid talking about sex in public. The country also deployed significant resources censoring sexual content, from pornography to inappropriate or offensive advertisements.
Although China tightly controls its cyberspace, Chinese Internet users still have large interests in discussing and viewing sex-related content. This leaves a unique space for condom brands like Durex to elaborate and conduct marketing campaigns with specially designed messages that implicitly talk about sex. Even though mentioning and discussing sex continues to be a social taboo in China, most Internet users are fairly open-minded when condom brands utilize such a strategy for promotional and marketing purposes.
It is not an easy task for those brands, however, as users may find some of the language or posts offensive. The joint promotional efforts between HeyTea and Durex were not successful: Internet users found it disgusting that the advertising message compared milk tea with sperm. And the backlash also resulted in fines from Chinese government authorities one year later.
Social media reactions related to the fines imposed against Durex are mixed: While some recognize that the advertisement in question was problematic, others feel that the issue will serve as an opportunity that will help the condom brand’s promotion. Yet for Durex’s social media marketing team, one thing is certain for the future: They will continue to proceed with their marketing strategies and will continue to walk along this extremely thin and sensitive line on the Chinese Internet.