#8.20. That was the new social media tag for the embarrassing fallout that hit China's CCTV on the nation's annual "Consumer Rights Gala" program. Thanks to a slew of dopey social media moves by a celebrity, CCTV's attack of Apple appeared to be exposed as a state-coordinated hatchet job on the Cupertino tech giant.
As we reported in our weekly China news round-up, CCTV's annual March 15 Consumer Rights Day Gala (央视315晚会) is one-half "60 Minutes" and one-half "The Bachelor." Each year, CCTV targets one or two companies to castigate and shame publicly for, in its view, abusing consumer trust. For several years in a row, CCTV has come down especially hard on foreign brands. But now, the popular annual event may have been severely weakened by, ironically, abusing consumer trust.
The propaganda gymnastics of Consumer Rights Day are a well-worn tradition of China's media. Last year, McDonald's faced CCTV's wrath in a condemnation of food quality that actually brought the Golden Arches' share price down. In the lead up to this year's show, McDonald's announced a one million McMuffin sandwiches giveaway, though it insisted the timing was just coincidental. Wal-Mart and Carrefour were also CCTV targets last year. (Incidentally, McDonald's gambit paid off Monday (3.18) as China went bonkers for free breakfast sandwhiches. Millions waited in long lines for what costs about $2. The brand name reached into the top discussed terms on Weibo.)
Speculation as to who CCTV would target for flogging this year focused on KFC and Coca-Cola. KFC has recently faced bad PR thanks to news of GMO chicken suppliers. Last August, Coke faced a chlorine-taint scandal. Both brands were given marquee placement on this year's China Daily "Protecting consumer's rights: Focus on int'l brands in China" [all sic] microsite.
In the end, 2013's show—the 23rd annual—came after Volkswagen and Apple. VW was blasted for endangering drivers' lives thanks to a direct shift gearbox system that causes engine failures. CCTV demanded VW to recall the vehicles. The failures had been determined by research done by China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. China automaker JAC also took a licking, as CCTV accused it of using substandard steel.
Meanwhile, CCTV—using undercover cameras in Apple Stores—accused Apple of offering less warranties to Chinese customers than to others around the globe. CCTV's charges included "discriminative provisions" such as "shorter warranty periods compared with that of other countries, using refurbished parts for repair and averting after-sale obligations." One detail of the accusation was that Apple was not following China's consumer law stipulating that a warranty be extended another year after any repairs are made during the period of the first year warranty. CCTV implied that this is the case for iPhone owners in foreign countries even though details on the Applecare site do not confirm this. Using refurbished parts and not replacing back pieces in repaired phones—both of which are likely common Apple repair practices—were also criticized.
The most damning part of the show was a woman claiming to be an Apple employee testifying that the policy was used by Apple to save money. She also implied that this was a policy aimed solely at Chinese consumers.
These allegations were not new. In August 2012, Apple faced a charge in a Shandong Province court from an iPod user upset that Apple had "violated his consumer rights by refusing to update the warranty after repairing two devices he had bought." That was after China's consumer rights authority had made Apple a target over its repair policies. Apple had updated some of its repair policy in line with the China Consumers' Association suggestions, but it had ignored others. It's very likely that this defiance made Apple a juicy target for CCTV's 3.15 program.
Everything was going CCTV's way until actor Peter Ho took to Weibo.
Reported in English first on the blog Offbeat China, sharp-eyed Weibo users were quick to reveal evidence that CCTV's 3.15 Apple attack might be a bit orchestrated. As numerous high-profile celebrities and social media mavens joined CCTV's call for Apple to capitulate—a goosing mass anger tactic used to great effect with McDonald's last year—one popular model and actor with over 5.4 million followers, Peter Ho (何润东), posted a screed about Apple's "dirty tricks," "Steve Jobs," shame and the company profiting from Chinese kids selling organs for iProducts. The post concluded with the words "大概8点20分发" or "Post around 8:20."
As Offbeat China reports, the post was deleted and replaced but it was too late. Weibo users had copped to the conspiracy. Soon, they were accusing numerous celebrity Weiboers of being on the CCTV take. Adding insult to accusation, they also wryly noted that the Weibo accounts of many Apple-bashers were betraying them by noting that the posts were coming from iPhones and iPads. Yes, Ho's posts also came from an iPhone.
Ho deleted everything and, at 10 p.m. Saturday evening, posted, "Now, this is the real Peter Ho. Somebody used my count to send earlier Weibos! Who can tell me how that can happen? ! Ridiculous!" ("现在是我何润东本人. 有人盗用了我的帐号发了我的上一篇微博！有谁能告诉我那到底是怎么回事? ! 太扯了!") But, as with so many caught out on social media, Peter Ho's downward spiral was not over.
Two days later, Sunday night, Ho posted a claim that he could not have posted anything at 8:20 as, from 7:30 to 9:30 that evening, he was busy filming a show. Ho insisted he was filing a police report, but social media users did not care, with many ridiculing him as a paid dupe. That message has produced over 27,000 responses. One other pointed out the damning fact that Ho had recently appeared on the cover of Fashion Weekly as a Samsung Galaxy S3 spokesman. (One interesting wrinkle that nobody has mentioned is that Ho, having been born in Los Angeles, may be an American citizen and, as such, a conspiracy theorist might posit his sabotage of CCTV deliberate.)
The morning after the show and the Weibo fallout, Apple posted a response to CCTV on its own Weibo account, stating, in part, that, "Apple is committed to producing world-class products, and providing unparalleled user experience for consumers. Our team works to exceed consumer expectation, and attaches great importance to the every consumer's opinion and suggestions."
By Monday, CCTV was being hung out to dry by some of its state-media cousins. The Global Times reported that CCTV was "caught in a publicity stunt." A Shanghai Daily report chronicled the whole dirty business, including Ho's original and subsequent excuses and the hypocrisy of Weibo celebrities using Apple products to slam Apple. But the "relevant organs" are still in control. That same day, in another report, the Shanghai Daily threw a little support behind the cause with a chastising report that "more than 20,000 college students have used their student loans to buy Apple gadgets."
While Apple's brand appears to have actually benefitted from the debacle, CCTV's may be irreparably damaged.
By Monday, comments on CCTV's blunder ranged from a sarcastic thanks to the reporters for using Apple to expose CCTV and Taiwanese pop stars (Ho) to a five-point "Boycott CCTV's 3.15 Gala" petition that had been circulated thousands of times.
No matter how CCTV proceeds, one thing for certain is that foreign brands that have sweated becoming the focus of the annual flagellation can rest a little easier next March. China's consumers are less likely to ever put any wholesale trust in CCTV's "consumer rights" coverage in the near future, with "remember #8.20" a likely, cynical response to future CCTV accusations.
At top: A YouTube video of the show (Chinese only). The transcript of the show (Chinese only) is at Sina.com.