Sex Sells in China – More and More Than it Used to

Well, 2015 was quite a sexy year for businesses in China. First, a young couple got intimate in a Uniqlo changing room with the footage of their out-of-home romp going viral on the local web.

Interesting enough in itself, and then curious consumers started browsing the aisles and looking for the infamous fitting room while couples showed up to take “sex selfies” in front of the Beijing store in homage to the daring duo.

Fan Bingbing China lovely

Fan Bingbing


Then, Fan Bingbing, arguably China’s most popular celebrity, performed a heated sex scene on a horse, in a film based in dynastic times.  While the horse was unharmed, there was quite a stir on the internet once again, with many netizens showing almost grave concern for Fan’s boyfriend’s feelings after the scene went public.

But importantly, Fan was not sanctioned for the scene, suggesting that the lines of expression have loosened. A similar scene by Chinese actress Tang Wei, in Ang Lee’s Lust Caution back in 2006, was deliberately made an example of by authorities.

In China, skin is in

More generally, we are seeing a lot more skin and bums in Chinese advertising as brands sense the opportunity that the oldest marketing truth – “sex sells” – is finally viable in the Middle Kingdom.


In a recent example, American brand Tyson cheekily launched their marinated chicken packs with male heartthrob Huang Xiaoming flaunting his upper body in huge outdoor ads – cleverly playing off the associations created by the Chinese term “fresh meat”, slang for attractive young men.

Tyson Chicken Sexy Huang Xiaoming - Branding in Asia

Huang Xiaoming giving up the ‘fresh meat’ for Tyson.

But the idea that Chinese consumers are interested in sex is hardly a surprise. China’s ancient history is full of orgy and concubine heroines. Even in the throws of the Cultural Revolution, the birth rate was at its highest in human history, providing the basis for the One Child Policy.

Once Deng Xiaoping opened the economy, the return of commercial sexual culture rose at a rapid pace, seen in the form of KTVs, massage parlors and sex shops which are still regular real-estate on modern Chinese streets.

Looking at it culturally, there is nothing to suggest that Chinese culture is in anyway antithetical to sex. Like Japan, arguably the nation most culturally proximate to China, there is no religious or philosophical rejection of sex on moral grounds.

In comparison to Christianity, where sex was termed evil from the day Adam and Eve eloped from Eden, there is no moral judgment against sex, merely a political one.

Chinese Girls Bikini Snow

Nothing says ‘Christmas in China’ like promoting a new line of bikinis in the snow, eh?

Changing times in China

The best example of this philosophical standpoint is a memory I have of reading a Chinese newspaper when I was a student here back in the early 1990s. One particular edition around Chinese New Year featured a cartoon of prostitutes taking planes rather than trains from the big city back to their families for the holiday. The caption read “Progress”, with no sarcasm intended.

However, we are now seeing the Chinese middle class looking to claim sexual culture for themselves as part of a new modern lifestyle they are cultivating. Sex is being taken from the margins, from the migrants, and placed more firmly as part of the modern urban lifestyle.  This is part of an emergent middle class identity defining itself more confidently and openly.

‘Let’s talk about sex, baby’ – if you do, your Chinese consumers will love you for it, because they are already talking about it, with or without you.

The government certainly will not mind this as there is nothing more destabilizing than a sexually frustrated middle class.

In a context, where the search for compatible partners is super competitive, there are plenty of Chinese urbanites wanting to spice up their selfies and overall personal branding.

Providing the cues are racy popular music videos from South Korea, where boy and girl bands pelt and pop in highly suggestive ways.  Breast surgery and male grooming are booming like nowhere else, suggesting the Chinese are investing heavily in being sexy.

A Sexier China in 2016?

I therefore see China in 2016 becoming more even risqué.

Take for instance, beer, a category that has shamelessly leveraged sex and sex appeal to a celebrated level. In China, to date, brands have rarely broached the theme of sex, preferring to play it safe with prosaic product descriptions and generic “fun time” moments. Not a hint of the flirtation, intrigue or fun you would expect elsewhere.

For both male and female drinkers, some level of sexual innuendo would be an instant differentiator in a bizarrely straight laced category.

It is not about being pornographic, it is simply doing what Salt-N-Pepa espoused all those years ago “Let’s talk about sex, baby” – if you do, your Chinese consumers will love you for it, because they are already talking about it, with or without you.

Sex Sells in China – More and More