He Promised a Dreamy Wedding Proposal. Fans Got a 5-Hour Sale.
A Chinese influencer was barred from a video-sharing app after luring viewers to a livestreamed engagement, where he promoted makeup, perfume and mobile phones.,
HONG KONG — A Chinese social media influencer promised something special to his eight million followers on a video-sharing app. He would propose to his girlfriend in a lavish declaration of livestreamed love that would fulfill their every romantic fantasy.
On the appointed day last weekend, the influencer and entertainer, Yin Shihang, 22, dressed in a white suit, rode a pony onto a red carpet lining a room whose walls were festooned with images of pink and white balloons, video from the event showed. Fans held their breath.
What followed was something other than romance: Mr. Yin proceeded to sell them stuff.
In a gravelly half-shout, Mr. Yin began hawking all manner of products — perfume, pajamas, lipstick, necklaces and mobile phones — in a five-hour spectacle on Kuaishou, a video-sharing app that allows livestreams. His pitch raked in $7.2 million through in-app purchases, according to local news media. But along with the sales, thousands of complaints from viewers came flooding in.
Many described tuning into an interminable marriage proposal that drained their phone battery. Some complained of deception and crass product placement. The controversy spurred Kuaishou to say it would begin the process of banning Mr. Yin’s account. Ultimately, he was ousted from the video platform that had brought him fame.
Kuaishou said in a statement on Monday that Mr. Yin’s broadcast, which had drawn more than 23,000 complaints, had broken its rules against creating misleading and vulgar hype to promote products. The company also said it would scrutinize the quality of the products he had sold. Representatives of the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the media and entertainment landscape, product placements are an expected part of the experience — a Coke sign here, an Aston Martin car there. They have migrated from blockbuster movie screens to television to influencers’ videos and social media accounts (think the Kardashians on Instagram).
Advertisements are also prevalent in video content made for online consumption, from YouTube reality shows to the videos of entertainers known as “livestream hosts,” who sing, dance, DJ or perform slapstick for viewers’ tips. Some of Kuaishou’s popular livestreamers peddle merchandise in the practiced tones of a seasoned auctioneer.
Mr. Yin is far from the first influencer to come under fire for a proposal video. American internet stars have been denounced for seeking perks, and profits, in “branded engagement” videos. Some have been rapped for pushing products on their personal accounts. In 2016, a consumer watchdog group, Truth in Advertising, said it had found more than 100 Instagram posts by the Kardashians that were paid product placements without being marked as advertising.
U.S. celebrities and media personalities must disclose their relationships with companies if they are reimbursed for a review or endorsement. The Federal Trade Commission advises social media users to add words like “sponsored,” “promotion” and “paid ad” to their posts.
Mr. Yin sold millions through a feature on Kuaishou that allows viewers to buy products touted by influencers on the online retailer JD.com without leaving the video app. It was unclear whether he had any ties to the manufacturers of the products he hawked, or whether brand collaborations and paid promotion have to be disclosed on the Kuaishou platform. During the broadcast, he denied promoting the products for profit. He could not be reached for comment.
While many viewers in China have come to expect, or even seek, a degree of product promotion with their entertainment, Mr. Yin’s use of a major life event as bait crossed the line for some. Many complained online that the livestreamed wedding engagement had turned into a home shopping network show.
One user named OrangeVenus wrote: “99% of the broadcast were dull introductions to merchandise. It’s no different from looking at the promotional web pages on Taobao.”
“Yin Shihang should have been banned long ago,” another said.
But some said that the platform’s punishment was excessive and that they would miss the influencer’s shenanigans.
Mr. Yin had never advertised the marriage proposal as a surprise. He and his girlfriend, Tao Lulu, had broken up and reconciled several times in the past, according to local news outlets. But for their engagement, she had dressed in a white lacy gown and appeared in a teaser video with Mr. Yin to announce the date and time of the special event.
After lurching into the room on the pony, Mr. Yin proceeded to hold up and describe in detail items like a scratch-free mirror, necklaces and lipstick he claimed he had custom-ordered for his girlfriend ahead of May 20, an unofficial Valentine’s Day in China, when romantic partners buy gifts for one another. (The date, 520, sounds vaguely like “I love you” in Mandarin.)
After the engagement scandal, Kuaishou, which bans the “malicious creation of gimmicks to get clicks and likes” and various forms of “vulgarity,” said it would crack down on the creation of sensationalist and “vulgar hype” for the purposes of promoting and selling products.
Separately, China’s internet regulators have introduced new regulations for livestreamed advertising that will go into effect next Tuesday, including a rule against “publishing false or misleading information to deceive or mislead users.”
In the wake of complaints about his livestreamed event, Mr. Yin posted a farewell statement on Monday on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform where he had 770,000 followers, with screenshots of him bowing in a gesture of gratitude.
“I am a simple person, like a child,” he wrote. “Maybe we won’t be able to see each other in the future. But I will remember you, and also hope you will remember me.”
Vivian Wang contributed reporting.