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Pharma-Chic: Cold Medicine 999 Goes Viral with “Fashion” Campaign

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999 Cold Remedy is China’s most common cold medicine; you’ll find it in nearly every household. Earlier this month, the company surprised everyone with a bold statement, which quickly went viral: “999 is officially entering the fashion industry.”

Alongside the announcement, 999 rolled out a preview of their four new designs.

They’re chock-full of retro-kitschy visuals, puns, Chinese rhyming names and slogans, and some comically-crafted broken English translations — basically, all of the Chinese internet’s good-bad habits in a nutshell. We’re here to break it all down for you.

These items have been fittingly named “high-waisted, heart-warming long underwear” (“高腰暖心秋裤”). That’s because these long underwear extend so far beyond the highest possible waistline that, eventually, they warm your heart: tip(toe) to nip(ple), foot arch to aortic arch.

Why is it being called long underwear here? We’ll get to that later.

Here’s a closer look at the four designs:

“不凉少年” (Bu liang shaonian) in the blue box translates to “the boy who never catches a cold.” This phrase is a play on the homonymic “不良少年,” which means “a young bad boy,” often used to describe the smoldering ‘90s Heath Ledger type you went to high school with.

The checkered past that led him to this fur-wearing, tacky-hair-salon-frequenting present day remains a mystery. But don’t be intimidated by his appearance: this bad boy “looks cool, but is warm deep down” (“看上去很酷其实很暖”). Despite all appearances of edginess, this is a garment for the deep-down softies.

“穿久保灵” (chuan jiubao ling) translates to “guaranteed payoff if you wear them long enough.”

Another play on words, in fact. These four characters read the same as the famous Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo’s name in Chinese (“川久保玲”) and the design features a parody of the signature red heart logo of CDG’s Play series.

Comme des Garçons’ Play series

“保灵” (“bao ling”) is a term commonly used when spreading a superstition, much like “repost this and you will get rich in 24 hours.” The incense burning in her hand might not get her a promotion and a raise — “升职加薪” means “get promoted” — but the long underwear surely will.

“养生朋克” (“yangsheng pengke”) translates to “healthcore punk,” a Chinese spin on the “health goth” trend. As the first wave of post-90s brats reluctantly grew up (myself included), more and more of us felt the need to cultivate wellness.

One of the most meme-ified items coming out of this wave was long underwear, since many of us were told growing up to wear seven layers of long underwear in cold weather to avoid joint pain in old age.

Soon after we embraced leggings, slim-fit jeans and quarter-life crises, we realized joint pain is painfully real. Now we buy long underwear from Uniqlo while making quality, self-deprecating jokes:

Long underwear: a “healthcore punk” essential

However, ’90s kids prefer to believe that wellness should never come at the cost of fun. Hence the suggestions on the poster: drink beer with goji berries, and coke with ginseng (“枸杞啤酒,人参可乐”) and disco-dance away the pain (“蹦迪解千愁”).

“跪舔客户” (gui tian kehu) translates to “getting down on one’s knees to suck up to the client” — a phrase commonly used in China’s advertising and marketing industries. In this spirit, the design answers a frequent client request: “MAKE THE LOGO BIGGER.”

This design is 99% logos and 1% a heart shape that goes out exclusively to the client.

“LOGO越大越有感” means “the bigger the logo, the bigger the impact.” Not to mention, it’s not warm enough until the client says so (“客户暖才是真的暖”). Much wow, very meta.

As you can see, 999 really wants to keep you warm during cold season — except, they don’t. That’s the catch here: these pairs of long underwear aren’t actually for sale.

This whole campaign was actually the grand prize winner of an open-call design competition that 999 held with popular Chinese design community content creator Pang Men Zheng Da (@庞门正道 on WeChat).

They received over 3,800 entries with possibly one of the shortest briefs in advertising history: “Theme: heart-warming 999 Cold Remedy; Form of expression: Unlimited.”

For marketing buffs out there, this is a great example of a low-budget viral campaign done well. Engage with a strong online community and play your cards right, and you’ll get “tap water coverage” (“自来水报道,” Chinese marketing slang for “unpaid media coverage and user shares”).

You can find all the winning entries on 庞门正道’s Wechat post here.

Emma Sun
Emma Sun is a Shanghai-based writer, producer and project manager. She's done video production work for clients including Ford, Audi, Nike, Sesame Street, Chanel, Elle, and more. She also works as a writer and translator, covering topics relating to contemporary Chinese culture and society for Variety and other outlets. Follow her on Instagram (@emmabpm) and Twitter (@emsbpm).