Advertising company Avazu gets attention from Chinese authorities due to a viral marketing campaign

According to state-run newspaper Shanghai Daily, the Sina Weibo (the most popular micro blog service in China) "Shanghai Hooligan" gained thousands of followers with posts in which he boasted of making a comfortable living from pickpocketing. In one instance, he claimed to follow 10 passengers on the subway, stealing from eight, making a total of 6,000 yuan ($950). Another message also appeared promising to return stolen handsets to victims earning less than 3,000 yuan a month, making him to be the Robin Hood of the thieves.

"Yes, I am a thief! But you are not qualified to call me thief! I’ve seen so many people who are rich but immoral," he wrote.

Creative viral marketing campaign

But what at first appeared to the social media diary of an oddly attention-hungry thief turns out to have been a creative viral marketing campaign dreamed up by a Shanghai-based advertising company.

The advertising company, Avazu, admitted on its official Sina Weibo feed that the whole thing had been dreamed up by an employee and that mobile phones and wallets appearing in photos this month belonged to staff members, “so users mistakenly believed that it was a real thief.” The aim of the account? To gain attention for a smartphone advertiser, which were among the items Shanghai Hooligan claimed to have stolen. (At one point, the Shanghai Hooligan uploaded a photo of a Green Orange smartphone, calling it his favorite.)

Strict government control of political and society discussions

China’s Internet is home to no shortage of publicity stunts. But with Chinese authorities on the rampage against online rumors in the wake of a major political scandal that at one point prompted unsubstantiated whispers of a coup, authorities don’t seem likely to find this particular bit of creative fakery very amusing.

Shortly after the last message posted by Shanghai Hooligan on Monday this week over 10 police officers came to the Avazu office to investigate. According to various sources the company was forced to delete the corresponding Sina Weibo and could get a civil or even a penal punishment.

An anonymous China expert states that China is currently standing shortly before the National Congress, which has been pivotal for a leadership changes in the People’s Republic of China. "During this period of time, Chinese government is extremely sensitive to any events, which could potentially cause social instabilities." He said.

Advertising company apologizes

An Avazu employee confirmed on the phone that staffers created the Shanghai Hooligan account and that discussions with the police are still ongoing. He said a similar marketing stunt in another country wouldn’t likely be handled so strictly by authorities, but referred other questions to statements on Avazu’s official Sina Weibo account.

“We hereby clarify the Shanghai Hooligan account and microblog posts were fictitious,” the company said in one Sina Weibo post. “We express our profound apologies.”

 [May 11, 2012]

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