by Michael O'Neill
March 19th, 2013

March 15th in China is a big day for brands, signaling International Consumer Rights Day. Each year, consumers are given the opportunity to air their grievances and brands hope that it isn’t their products that catch the public’s ire.

One of the media highlights of the day is the “3.15 International Consumer Rights Day” TV show on national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). This year, the unfortunate brands singled out included Apple, Volkswagen, Jianghuai Tongyue (Chinese car brand), Hong Kong-based Chow Tai Seng Jewellery, 163.com, and Gaolaotai (Chinese healthcare product brand).

But what really caught the public’s imagination this year was a related post on the Weibo microblog that may have unintentionally helped Apple escape too fierce an attack.

As the TV show went live, netizens in China began an animated discussion on Weibo in real time. Soon after Apple was accused of double standards for its record of poor after-sale service in China compared to other countries, a number of famous posters on Weibo began to criticize Apple.

Among them was Peter Ho, a Taiwanese actor with 5.3 million fans on Weibo, who posted the message:  “#3.15 action# Apple plays so many tricks on the after-sale service. I feel so hurt as a big fan of Apple. This is a shame on Steve Jobs. Apple abuses its power and bullies the consumers. It will be posted at around 8:20 pm.”

While few saw any problem with Ho’s sentiment, that last sentence was jarring. With the post being made at exactly 8.26pm, it fuelled suspicion that the actor may have been acting on behalf of a third party and that his feeling toward Apple may not have been genuine.

The Weibo post was reposted more than 1,700 times in just one hour, and ‘8:20’ quickly became a Weibo buzzword. Peter Ho joined in the conversation around 10pm saying that he did not post the tweet, and that his account must have been hacked.

Despite his denials, Ho and the ‘8.20’ meme was soon the target if much online mirth and criticism. Screen shots of other anti-Apple posts from famous Weibo posters were shared around, along with many sardonic comments. The upshot was a wave of sympathy for Apple for being the victim of what appeared to be an orchestrated attack.

But the lessons from the ‘8.20’ episode go wider. While the identity of the potential third party involved in Ho’s post remains unknown, it was an abject lesson is how not to use an online key opinion leader (KOL).

Authenticity is central: if a celebrity KOL genuinely loves your brand, this will be reflected in their interactions. If the KOL is being used as a paid shill, using their fame and influence in a cynical manner, the smallest sign that this may be the case will be jumped on by an eager army of critics, especially in China where truth on Weibo is a much more desired commodity than it is on traditional media such as CCTV. Ho may have got off lightly so far, but other brands may not be so lucky.

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