They are shamed on television yet named as a driving force behind China’s consumer boom. Middle class with disposable incomes, single women have played a key role in keeping the world’s second biggest economy ticking over.
But while they are feted for their spending power, they have been compared to “used cars” or portrayed in a sexist way in tasteless television ads aimed at, yes, female consumers.
In October, IKEA caused a social media storm when a Chinese advert for the Swedish furniture chain featured a mother who threatened to disown her unmarried daughter.
The 30-second commercial showed a family scene with a stern-looking Chinese mom telling her daughter: “If you cannot bring back a boyfriend, don’t call me mom.”
At that point, a young man appears at the door with flowers, and the delighted parents roll out their IKEA dining table with branded decorations and cutlery. The scene ends with the tagline: “Celebrate Everyday Life”.
All IKEA was left to “celebrate” was a wave of criticism for being sexist and insulting to single women, as well as alienating its customer base in China.
“The TV ad has been withdrawn from all channels by IKEA China,” Linda Xu, a spokeswoman for the retail group, said in a statement. “We understand the concern caused by this advertisement and sincerely apologize for giving the wrong perception.”
As the row erupted on social media, IKEA was criticized for stigmatizing young, unmarried professional females in their late 20s, known as “leftover women”.
In recent years, this term has triggered an angry backlash against gender discrimination. After IKEA’s apology on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, citizens posted comments calling the advert “disgusting” and “old-fashioned” with many demanded a boycott of the brand.
Months earlier, Audi had to apologize for airing a sexist commercial in which a bride was inspected as if she was a car.
“The ad’s perception that has been created for many people does not correspond to the values of our company in any way,” the German luxury car company said in a statement.
Part of Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker, Audi’s TV ad depicted the groom’s mother inspecting the bride’s physical appearance during a wedding ceremony.
She pinches the bride’s nose, ears and lips before her son intervenes. Finally, before leaving the ceremony, the future mother-in-law catches a glimpse of the blushing bride’s breasts.
“An important decision must be made carefully,” a voice is then heard, according to an English translation, with the ad cutting to footage of an Audi.
Naturally, the ad sparked an outcry on Weibo.
“The annoying thing about Audi’s used-car ad, besides its objectification of women, is that it thinks Chinese customers deserve only commercials like this,” was one of the comments.
“It assumes romantic relationships for Chinese men and women are just like this: dominated by the mother-in-law, controlled by the male and with a passive female. Would Audi air such a discriminatory commercial in Europe or the United States?”
Certainly not. But then, this gender discrimination, particularly aimed at “leftover women”, has prompted serious debate even in the ultra-conservative Global Times.
Writing in the state-owned tabloid, Liu Jianxi addressed the controversy in a poignant first-person piece back in February.
“Spring Festival was a torture for me, a sad truth that I have to admit. ‘When will you be married?’ haunted me all the way through the eight-day holiday. Single at 25, I am urged to ‘catch’ the right man as early as possible or be regarded as a ‘leftover’ woman in most of my relatives’ eyes, a term, I believe, is discriminative against females,” she wrote.
“Explaining my relationship status to my ‘warmhearted’ aunties was part of my daily routine. ‘Men will become more attractive as they age, but females won’t. This is the way it is . . . I gave birth to two babies when I was your age . . . You should put your marriage at the top of your agenda. Otherwise, you will be laughed at by others if you are still alone after 25′,” Liu went on.
“‘Spend more time dating. Believe me, this is for your own good.’ These caring words bombarded me from the first day of the holiday to the last. My relatives were so anxious about my marriage, and it seems that being ‘leftover’ at 25 is something that I should be embarrassed about.”
In conclusion, she called for tolerance and respect. Words which rarely appear in the same sentence in China.
“The term ‘leftover women’ has been hyped up in recent years. While the whole (of) society should show more tolerance and respect to our personal life, we need to be strong in the face of suspicions and discriminations as well,” she wrote. “Being single at 25 is nothing strange, a fact that society should accept and respect.”
Her sentiments are impossible to disagree with. After all, young middle-class women have helped breathe new life into China’s luxury goods sector after it was blown off course by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign five years ago.
Today, these newly affluent consumers are a crucial segment of the market.
Consultancy Bain & Co in a report on the sector’s outlook to 2020 confirmed that China would be the main engine for luxury growth worldwide.
“The anti-corruption campaign has removed the froth from the market, as spending and consumption is now very largely legitimate,” Luca Solca, head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas, told Bloomberg News.
Before the government’s crackdown in 2012, men were the main customers with luxury watches and jewelry as vital status symbols.
But now, the emphasis has switched to spending by women on designer clothes, handbags and expensive perfume.
“(China’s luxury market) was mainly dominated by the male segment,” Serena Rovai, a professor at France’s La Rochelle Business School, wrote in her book Luxury the Chinese Way. “Now, thanks to the increasing purchasing power of women and the anti-corruption policy regarding often male-driven gift-giving, (there is a more prominent female presence).”
Bloomberg News reported that British brand Burberry announced “mid-teen percentage growth” in retail sales during the April-to-June quarter, boosted by exposure on WeChat’s social media platform.
Kering, the owner of Gucci Group, stated that Chinese revenue from its luxury brands jumped almost 50% in the first half of the year compared with the first six months of 2016.
Sales at its Yves Saint Laurent label were up nearly 67%, while LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton reported continuing strong growth for wines and spirits.
“You have had a bit of excess purchasing reversing very low purchasing, and we don’t think that can go on forever,” Erwan Rambourg, global co-head of consumer and retail research at HSBC told Bloomberg News. “Pent-up demand, by definition, doesn’t sustain.”
That may be, but it is hard to believe when you look at the well-heeled female shoppers in Sanlitun, an area in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, which bristles with high-end boutique stores, chic restaurants and trendy bars.
“Since we are the ones spending the money, it would be nice to be treated as equals in all levels of Chinese society,” said shopper Jing Chyou, an accountant in her late 20s. “Sometimes that simply doesn’t happen.”