Written by Hsin-I Sydney Yueh.
On November 13, 2021, NBA player Enes Kanter posted a Twitter message, stating that Taiwan is “not a part of China”; this particular video elicited a warm-hearted response from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She said, “Thank you, Enes, for standing with Taiwan and standing up for democracy.” Kanter quoted Tsai’s reply and said he wanted to “meet the brave people of Taiwan.”
Since mid-October, Kanter has used his stardom to stand against China and express his sympathy for people fighting for freedom. This Muslim American basketball player is one of few NBA athletes to have outspokenly criticised the Chinese communist regime. Thanks to Kanter’s fame and his amicable exchange with Tsai, numerous media reported this episode. This is a successful example of celebrity marketing.
Celebrity marketing is not a new phenomenon. This approach markets famous people as a brand and often uses their lifestyle and personality to create an ideal image. Actors, sports players, and social media influencers have been the face of brands for years, but the recent boom involves politicians’ participation.
Just like President Tsai’s interaction with Kanter, Taiwanese politicians’ Twitter accounts aim to increase international visibility. However, to grab Taiwanese netizens’ attention, almost every politician and candidate has a Facebook account because this is the most popular social media site in Taiwan as of 2020. In addition, YouTube and Instagram have also become significant “battlefields” for Taiwanese politicians to promote their achievements and communicate their ideas to supporters.
As for domestic politics, Tsai’s use of social media and celebrity marketing led her to win the 2020 presidential election. In my upcoming peer-reviewed journal article, “Spicy Taiwanese Sister” against the Rise of China: Gender, Identity Politics, and Elections in Taiwan (scheduled to be published in 2022), I analyse how the 2020 Tsai campaign converted the feeling of disgust toward China’s oppression into the “little assured happiness” for Taiwan, via effective social media campaigning.
It is clear that Tsai used some tactics of celebrity marketing to persuade Taiwanese voters to support her. The following is a summary of the three points in my article that relate to celebrity marketing.
First, Tsai borrowed popular imagery to brand her own image. After Tsai strongly rejected China’s leader Xi Jinping’s unification speech on January 2, 2019, Taiwanese netizens started to nickname her “Spicy Taiwanese Sister” (辣台妹). They admired her “spicy” leadership and undaunted attitude toward China’s threat. The rapper Dwagie even composed a song with this nickname as the title to celebrate her resolution.
The origin of the term came from Taiwan’s popular music, with a derogatory connotation toward women. For example, rappers MC HotDog and MJ116 have used the term to express a misogynistic view in their works. Tsai’s campaign did not refuse the label given by the unmalicious young netizens; instead, her team embraced the imagery of Spicy Taiwanese Sister to enrich Tsai’s public image.
Furthermore, Tsai redefined the term in one of her Facebook posts: “The spiciness… lies in our attitude and stance…. When it comes to Taiwan, all of us are ‘Spicy Taiwanese Camp’ (辣台派)!” This way, the gendered bias was removed, and the neologism became inclusive and gender-neutral. Built on the existing popular cultural reference, Tsai smartly created the new term “Spicy Taiwanese Camp” to present her image as a protector of Taiwan.
Second, celebrity marketing involves mutual collaborations and endorsements featuring famous people. To reach out to young Taiwanese voters, Tsai started to produce clips about her fun interactions with social media influencers. When Tsai posted the official version on her social media accounts, those influencers would upload their versions of interacting with Tsai on their own social media outlets. The view numbers skyrocketed in a short time.
These collaborations took various forms. Some social media influencers interviewed President Tsai in a semi-formal way, while others played on the imagery of Spicy Taiwanese Sister when collaborating with Tsai. In the political discourse, these lively interactions became a symbol of intimacy. People can make fun of the president, and this is a way to respect and admire her. This shows an unaggressive nature of Taiwanese democracy.
Third, communication techniques inspired by celebrity marketing have reinvented traditional election rallies. For instance, Tsai hosted several non-traditional rallies specifically targeting young supporters. These rallies had limited space and required early registration as if they were super-popular music concerts. This new type of rally is similar to the newly developed idol culture in Japan, where young idols host fan meetings to directly thank their supporters by shaking hands and being photographed with them.
Those who were lucky enough to get admission tickets to the non-traditional rallies would meet Tsai and other DPP candidates for office, and could watch them sing, play games, and share their political visions. Tsai’s “fan meetings” were also live-streamed for those young Spicy Taiwanese Camp who could not participate in person. Voters were invited to a carnival through these humorous, convivial activities. Her rallies temporarily insulated voters from the external threat from China.
Social media accounts provide a unique, personalised, and direct channel for celebrity marketing compared with traditional media. However, while Taiwanese celebrities and politicians, like people living in other democratic countries, enjoy the freedom of speech on the internet, the PRC government allegedly monitors and censors Chinese celebrities’ social media accounts.
Recently, more than 170 Chinese diplomats bickered with Western officials; they denied the accusation about the origin of COVID-19 and mocked Americans on issues of race on Twitter. This so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy was instructed by China’s leader Xi. Unfortunately, although this collective, aggressive approach has successfully increased Xi’s domestic support, it is not helping to boost China’s image around the world.
In contrast to China’s hostile and insulting language, Taiwan is reaping the benefits of soft power, or “cat warrior” diplomacy. The use of social media by President Tsai and other officials to build friendships with foreign countries has worked well in generating awareness about Taiwan’s role in the world.
Any trends in international and domestic politics cannot be attributed to a single factor. My analysis offers one perspective, to understand Tsai’s persuasive tactics in terms of celebrity marketing. The case of Taiwan also shows that the aggressive message from China will not achieve its purpose. Instead, against China’s belligerent rhetoric, a sense of pride in Taiwanese identity strengthens Taiwan.
Hsin-I Sydney Yueh is Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Studies, College of Liberal Arts Northeastern State University
This piece was published as part of a special issue on Celebrities.