Over the past few years, China has cracked down on what it considers misleading advertising. And its idea of “misleading” may come as a surprise to some companies.

In March 2015, China fined P&G close to $1 million because of a toothpaste advertisement. The ads featured a smiling Taiwanese talk show host and boasted of the whitening power of the Crest brand. The problem: Chinese authorities found that the spokesperson’s teeth had been digitally whitened.

Crest Ad in Chinese

China rolled out updated policies on advertising in 2012 and released new regulations in September 2014. The P&G case signaled their willingness to enforce the regulations vigorously.

Prohibited products and activities include:

  • Advertisers of infant formula cannot claim that formula can replace mother’s milk. (China is concerned about the rising use of formula and its health effects.)
  • Tobacco advertising in mass media or public places is banned, and tobacco advertising aimed at underage consumers is banned totally.
  • Alcohol ads cannot depict drinking nor can they imply that drinking alcohol improves strength or eliminates anxiety.

“Extreme words”

In addition, China has prohibited the use of “extreme words” in advertising.  These include superlatives where there is no independent supporting evidence to justify the claim (“best,” “most,” “latest”), words summoning national or other authorities (“leading brand,” “China’s best,”) and words related to being “first,” or “number one.”  Both the brand itself and its celebrity endorsers can be held liable for violations.

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Not just paid advertising

Regulations apply to content beyond paid and digital advertising.  In 2017, the Australian brand Blackmores was fined for claiming on their WeChat account and in-store advertising that their nutritional supplements could help combat arthritis and heart disease (according to the regulations, health supplements should not claim to offer medical benefits).  In September 2018, new regulations on e-commerce extended liability for infractions to e-commerce platforms and to third-party merchants selling misleadingly advertised products.

Watch website copy

The Blackmores Australian website can comfortably claim to be “Australia’s No. 1 Brand.”  However, in China, this would be a mistake. If an American brand is translating their website for Chinese customers, a cultural consultant should review the English-language copy and adapt it for Chinese regulations before the translation process begins. This is particularly important if you plan to rely on a search engine’s “automatic” translation interface to reach your customers.

Not just big global brands

Every March 15, the Chinese national broadcast station CCTV airs the 315 Evening Gala to celebrate World Consumer Rights Day. In the past, Chinese authorities focused on multinational corporations based in the West. Global brands including McDonald’s, Nike, Apple, Volkswagen, and Hewlett-Packard have been shamed on 315 Gala for misleading consumer advertising.

The 2019 broadcast bucked this trend, however, focusing their “60 Minutes”-style exposés exclusively on smaller Chinese brands.

Chinese consumers represent a growing and lucrative market. When creating Chinese-language content for both B2B and B2C, choose expert localization partners who can recognize advertising violations before the Chinese government does.

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