Some people were laughing at Tom Hiddleston this weekend. It’s because he did a commercial for Centrum in China. And …well… you kind of have to see it to appreciate what the “cringe” is all about.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to defend Tom here so if you came for a takedown, sorry, this is not what I’m doing.
Western audiences find this corny and creepy, the way it’s shot in vertical format, deliberately made to feel intimate and “romantic”. Fine, but this wasn’t made for a western audience. It was specifically made for a Chinese audience, tailored to Chinese tastes. Tom evidently has a big fanbase in China. And this ad played very well over there, receiving a lot of support on social media with #Centrum trending on Weibo and many users posting their receipts, having bought the vitamins after seeing the commercial. Which means, well, it WORKED. It’s good work.
Would it have worked with English consumers? No, probably not. But, again, if you’re an English speaker, this is not for you. Chinese speakers, particularly straight women, for whom this was meant, appreciated his Mandarin, his pronunciation, and… also…they appreciated that they were being catered to, that they were being indulged. Per the BBC:
There's also the novelty of being served breakfast by a Western man, says Tay Guan Hin, founder of ad agency the TGH Collective.
"For a Chinese woman to be served by a man is not common in Asia, let alone a Caucasian man, so that's something that adds to that [fantasy] element," he said.
This is why they’re not cringing over in China. And this is why Tom’s ad is one of the few western company ads that has done well in the market. Too many other companies have tried to sell products in China and other parts of the world by marketing to what’s “cool” by western standards and they haven’t landed. Because that approach reflects a lack of understanding – and, therefore, research – about what appeals to non-western audiences which, by the way, reinforces cultural hierarchy, like what’s “cool” in western culture should be the standard by which “cool” is defined everywhere else. And that’s f-cking rich since, clearly, they want that foreign money.
Just another perspective, then, when considering Tom’s ad. He’s out there getting that money – just like so many of his peers who’ve done the same, making commercials overseas, which is a celebrity practice that’s been happening for decades. Before the internet and social media, though, they didn’t have to worry so much about not looking “cool” back in western society. Now all that has changed. They don’t get to take the money while hiding their embarrassment. Which is another thing I want to defend about Tom: I hope he’s not embarrassed. Do you get to be embarrassed when you sign the contract and pocket the cash?
Nobody is forcing the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to make commercials for the Asian market for millions of dollars. But they only do it over there because they think it’s far enough away from North America, like the distance will hide the shame. Why the shame though? Partly it’s because artists don’t want to be called sellouts. But partly, too, it’s because of the western audiences and reactions like these, like the ones we saw online this weekend, laughing at Tom Hiddleston. I maybe used to be one of those people. Even though I’m Chinese, having grown up in North America, I internalised the “cool” hierarchy – and it takes decades to unlearn. It has taken a long time to appreciate that what people of my ethnic background consider to be “cool” is just as “cool” as what western culture (ie white culture) reads as “cool”.
While we’re here though, and while so many people are laughing at Tom Hiddleston, why not spread the laughter? Because how is his ad any more “cringey”, if that’s how you want to see it, than these ones featuring Leo?
That’s Leo for Jim Beam, trying to tell Japanese people that “cool” involves juggling and squinting like a slickster while exploding ice balls. Sure. What’s the message here? That douchebags drink Jim Beam?
That’s a lot more “cringey” to me than Tom Hiddleston making salad and cooking an egg into the shape of a heart. Can we laugh at Leo too? Or are we too committed to his cool as f-ck image, with all the supermodels and the Alpha Wolf Pussy Possying?