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Why Consumer Rights Day has Companies Quaking in China [updated]

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For many companies and their PR departments, March 15 is a day filled with dread. World Consumer Rights Day, often referred to as “315” in China, is marked with glee and schadenfreude for customers, and increased blood pressure and trepidation for higher ups at big brands, thanks to CCTV’s “gala” dedicated to exposing alleged malpractice.

The annual two-hour TV special has aired since 1991 but has become an increasingly major event in recent years, and concurrently caused a few major headaches for some of the most recognizable brands operating in the country, including the likes of Apple, Volkswagen, and Starbuck’s. Splicing together light entertainment routines with product exposés, the show is watched by millions and regularly leads to a wave of public apologies and grovelling from the brands caught in the crosshairs.

Previous years have seen companies attempt to get ahead of the game by being extra nice, with reports of free food and gadgets being handed out by some stores across the country. Earlier this week in Shanghai, McDonald’s – who were accused of poor hygiene standards in 2012 – were providing customers with “Thank You” leaflets that stated, “McDonald’s wishes you good feelings every day.” Aww.

The theme for tonight’s show has been announced as “Quality consumption, beautiful life”, which has naturally led to plenty of speculation over who is set to be featured. We’ll update this post with the subjects of 2018’s gala once all is revealed [now updated – see below], but for now, here are some of the biggest allegations from last year.

Suspect sneakers

One of the main targets of last year’s show was Nike. Apparently, the firm’s “Hyperdunk” shoes didn’t actually contain any “Zoom air” pockets as advertised. Full of remorse, a Nike statement swiftly afterwards said, “As soon as we were made aware, we immediately contacted consumers to offer compensation and apologise for the confusion and inconvenience.”

Fishy foodstuffs

MUJI was another major “culprit” last year, after CCTV claimed that the minimalist Japanese lifestyle brand had been selling food products hailing from an area of their homeland that had recorded high levels of radiation two years previously.

The same show also took aim at online shopping platforms JD.com and Tmall for also featuring supposedly contaminated products.

MUJI took to Weibo to issue a contrite statement:

Dodgy doctors

One segment that got a lot of attention in 2017 focused on Lebailing Bio-Tech Company in Wuhan, who were accused of duping consumers – especially the elderly – by using people impersonating doctors to sell somewhat suspect medicines and health supplements.

2018’s targets: Volkswagen, bike share apps and, err, toothbrushes

Volkswagen were among the main subjects of this year’s consumer rights gala on CCTV, with the automaker facing criticism over engine defects on their Touareg SUV model. VW – who have now featured on the programme three times in the past five years – apologized almost immediately. The company had already announced plans for a recall of affected vehicles earlier this month.

The programme also turned its fire on a number of bike sharing apps, singling out the likes of KuQi for going out of business and taking customers’ deposits with them. A valid complaint of course, but hardly a surprising one – similar stories have been appearing in Chinese media for months now.

Another segment looked at the poor quality of some imported toothbrushes, focusing on those from Japan and South Korea. Again, not invalid complaints but a far cry from the big brand takedowns of previous years.

A Reuters report on this year’s gala contains an admission that it’s getting harder for CCTV to catch companies out:

“It’s definitely tougher now to do this show. Many firms start taking precautionary measures half a year in advance,” said a person close to the show, who declined to be identified as he was not permitted to speak to the media.

In general, it was hardly a vintage 315, which you could argue is a sign of progress. Then again, it may also be the case that companies are getting savvier about their PR in the run-up to Consumer Rights Day, which doesn’t necessarily mean improved consumer rights. According to SCMP:

Consumer complaints surged 44 per cent year on year in 2017 in general, with complaints regarding online purchases in particular surging 184.4 per cent, according to data from China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce, which deals with consumer disputes with companies.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.

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