It is hard to know precisely when the first instance of ‘guerrilla’ or ‘ambush’ marketing happened. But one famed example occurred 18 years ago, when then boxing champ Mike Tyson took on Britain’s Julius Francis. It was heavily expected that Francis would spend much of the fight on his back, so an innovative party had the idea of sponsoring the soles of his boots – knowing its logo would feature prominently on camera.
The sponsor in this case was the Daily Mirror, which saw the opportunity to needle Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon who was airing the fight on his pay-per-view Sky channel and also owned the Mirror’s main UK tabloid rival, The Sun. As it turned out, Francis was knocked down five times in the two rounds the bout lasted and this gave the second-best selling ‘red-top’ newspaper valuable exposure.
Fast forward to contemporary China: last week two publicity stunts grabbed headlines, one for similar reasons (ambushing another brand during a live sporting spectacle) and the other because of the perpetrator’s online notoriety.
The first involved Chinese swimming superstar Sun Yang who was competing for his country at the Asian Games. Sun won gold at the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle events, a feat that required “unprecedented endurance” in the view of the China Daily.
However, overshadowing the 26 year-old’s achievement in the pool were the awards ceremonies where he received his medals. The first occurred on August 19 when Sun took to the podium to receive his 200m gold. But instead of wearing the officially sponsored Anta-branded uniform of the Chinese team, he wore a yellow jacket made by 361 Degrees, a rival sportswear brand that sponsors him.
Furious Anta officials quickly published a statement that Sun had allowed his “personal interests to prevail over the national interest” by breaking the rule that he must wear the team’s officially sponsored gear.
His critics said he was arrogantly abusing his position as China’s most high-profile athlete. Meanwhile for 361 Degrees, Anta’s Fujian-based competitor, the attendant publicity was priceless.
Nor did Anta feel much better when Yang claimed his next medal. This time he wore Anta kit, but draped himself in the national flag and obscured the sportswear firm’s logo.
The second publicity stunt occurred in the fast-growing world of e-sports, which is generating huge viewership among China’s younger demographic.
Step forward Wang Sicong – heir to the Wanda Group empire – and viewed by some as the nation’s most eligible bachelor and by others as a gauche playboy who flaunts his wealth (even Wang’s father issued a public rebuke when in 2015 his son published photos online of his dog wearing two gold Apple Watches worth $40,000).
Wang junior also stoked an internet sensation in January last year for celebrating his 29th birthday with a five-day, exclusive party on a Maldives island that reportedly set him back $500,000.
Indeed, Wang became such a polarising figure that China’s Twitter-equivalent Sina Weibo said in February that his name and nickname would be included among 38 banned search terms for three months.
However, you can’t keep a good controversialist down and Wang decided this month to use his celebrity status to generate publicity for his e-sports team Invictus Gaming (iG). On the night of August 16 he announced that he’d registered as a League of Legends Pro League player. Three days later he played his first match – and broke the record for the league’s oldest ever debutant. The interest was huge: his match was watched on the online streaming site Bilibili by 10 million, versus an average of 3 million for normal fixtures, said news portal Huxiu.
And with the help of two of iG’s South Korean players, Wang’s team won. Milking the opportunity he then gave a post-match interview suggesting that he might retire so as to keep his 100% winning record intact. Speculation on his future e-sports career will also ensure the valuable publicity for Invictus Gaming rolls on…
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