With help from 007's Daniel Craig, how Alibaba turned 11-11 into China's biggest shopping day

In the annals of television history, China's “Tmall Double-11 Night Carnival” might go down as the watershed moment when 21st century retailing geniuses first truly fused online shopping and entertainment into one awe-inspiring juggernaut of consumerism.

More cynical types may see the star-studded, three-hour live broadcast — created by e-commerce behemoth Alibaba and featuring celebrities such as 007 actor Daniel Craig, “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey and singer Adam Lambert — as the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

A combination of the Grammys, the Oscars, a game show, the Home Shopping Network and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve — all counting down to China's equivalent of Black Friday or Cyber Monday — the program was created by Alibaba to stoke interest in “Double 11,” a newfangled Chinese holiday also known as Singles Day.

 

The Nov. 11 event, which originated in the 1990s as a sort of anti-consumerist Valentine's Day for the singles set, has quickly become China's biggest shopping day of the year, thanks to a blitzkrieg of publicity efforts by Alibaba starting in 2009.

This year, Alibaba said total transaction volume on its Tmall.com platform alone hit $14.4 billion on Wednesday, far ahead of last year's record $9.3 billion. By comparison, U.S. retail store sales reached $9.1 billion on last year's Black Friday and about $53 billion for the entire Thanksgiving weekend, including online sales through Cyber Monday.

But in the last two years, the company known for its online shopping platforms, including Taobao, has moved beyond e-commerce and payments and aggressively into the entertainment space.

It has launched its own movie and TV production arm, Alibaba Pictures, purchased the online streaming video site Youku Tudou, created a film crowd-funding service called Yulebao, started an Ali Music division and begun selling set-top TV devices called Tmall magic boxes.

Alibaba also has invested in Hollywood films, starting with Paramount Pictures' “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.”

For anyone still wondering how all those entertainment parts fit together with Alibaba's mainline e-commerce business, the Tmall Double-11 Night Carnival made it obvious how company founder Jack Ma envisions using celebrity and entertainment platforms to drive purchases on his e-commerce platforms.

The event also showed how his e-commerce platforms can, in turn, push shoppers to shell out for song downloads, movie tickets, TV programming and more — all, one imagines, ideally produced by Alibaba in one perfect continuous feedback loop of mass consumption.
 

“Jack Ma and the team at Alibaba have proven to be more visionary and proactive in planning than virtually any of their peers, whether domestic or international,” said Brian Buchwald, chief executive of consumer intelligence consulting firm Bomoda, which has offices in Shanghai and New York.

“Jack is building Alibaba as the hub of all things commerce, whether it be physical goods bought and sold online or in an offline store or now virtual goods and services,” Buchwald said.

On Wednesday, Ma rang the opening bell for New York Stock Exchange trading remotely from Beijing. He then told CNBC-TV in an interview that the Singles Day event “symbolized the future growth of ... domestic consumption” and that China had “huge potential” for further consumer spending.

Though its rapid economic growth has slowed considerably, China remains a key to helping revive a sluggish world economy. Its impact was felt in August when turmoil in its stock markets and government response sent markets tumbling worldwide.

But it's not clear yet whether the spending on Singles Day marks a rising Chinese economy or merely a bargain shopping day for which shoppers have saved.

“People are watching this as a macroeconomic trend, but also as a predictor for the e-commerce sector,” said Puneet Manchanda, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. “Given China's economic slowdown, it's a bigger bellwether of how the consumer is feeling, but it's also assumed an exaggerated importance.”

The Double 11 Carnival is essentially an edgier version of the Spring Festival Gala variety shows that have been a fixture on state-run TV for decades on the eve of Chinese New Year.

But unlike the staid CCTV broadcasts, which aim to please everyone from children to the senior set and which Communist Party propaganda officials pay close attention to, this week's Alibaba show took an edgier, hipper approach. It targeted young, tech-savvy shoppers accustomed to buying online and using their mobile phone wallets to pay for almost everything and often using Alibaba's own Alipay system.

The program kicked off with a Taiwanese singer performing alongside barely clothed foreign male models wearing women's high heels. Up next was a “Star Wars” segment featuring R2D2 and Storm Troopers, a plug for Disney's upcoming movie launch.

The swaggering Hua Chenyu, dressed in all black, delivered an angry rap unlikely to be music to the ears of a Chinese granny: “If you don't like my song, you can shut your ears!” he blared. “Now I will penetrate your eardrums without mercy, to reach the bottom of your soul to make you admire me!”

Celebrities relentlessly urged viewers to buy, buy, buy, modifying the lyrics of well-known songs into odes to shopping. “Who is telling me 50% off only happens one day [a year]?” Hua later sang. “If you don't have a computer, use your phone; if you don't have Wi-Fi, use 4G!”

Spacey — famous in China thanks to the popularity of his Netflix show, “House of Cards,” which streams here on the Sohu platform — also got into the act. Playing his character, U.S. President Frank Underwood, he delivered a two-minute recorded message to viewers, ostensibly recorded in the White House.

“If this Singles Day is the excuse you've been waiting for to spoil yourself with a little online shopping, then I must say I'm more than a little jealous,” he said in Underwood's trademark Southern drawl.

“Here at the White House, there are so many firewalls blocking me from shopping online that not even the president will be able to take advantage of those amazing deals you'll see online during this holiday.”

Spacey urged shoppers to buy items including “burner” phones, “presidential” M&Ms and even their own Oval Office replica desk, then quoted one of Alibaba founder Ma's well-known lines: “Today is hard. Tomorrow will be worse. But the day after tomorrow will be sunshine.”

Of course, anyone could go online to try to snag some Nov. 11 discounts beginning at midnight, but those who tuned in to the broadcast — it aired on satellite channel Hunan TV and streamed on Alibaba's Youku website — were able to play along online with game-show segments; those who correctly predicted the winning team in each contest could unlock the chance to buy things such as imported Australian milk and Cadillacs for about 15 cents.

In the final segment, Craig appeared alongside Ma, who poked fun at his own sometimes-awkward appearance with a rap that went in part: “I have something to say today.… Everyone says I'm ugly but actually I'm very handsome.”

Meanwhile, the hosts fawned over “Mr. Bond” and reminded viewers to “go out and support 007!” Tickets for the latest James Bond film “Spectre” could be bought on Tmall for about $3, an unusually low price for a Hollywood blockbuster.

At its peak viewership, the program generated nearly a 30% audience share, according to tracking site Kuyun.com — a rating equal to or higher than CCTV's new year galas. At midnight, with the long-touted online deals finally live, millions of viewers turned like pumpkins into shoppers, reaching for their mobile phones to hastily click for limited-quantity discounts on everything from clothing to wine.

By morning, the conversation on social media turned to picking apart the show's highlights (Spacey) and shortcomings (off-key singing) — a la the griping that comes post-Oscars — and comparing who landed the best prices on coveted goods.

“This is like a new tradition for us,” said Zenabo Ma, a thirtysomething woman who works at a Beijing investment firm. “It's more fun than other holidays; it's for young people.”

And indeed, the creative types involved in pulling together the show defended it not just as an exercise in commercialism but an effort at cultural creation that may grow over time — and even eventually supplant older Chinese traditions.

“It's possible that in 10 to 20 years, this holiday will have accumulated more ‘cultural heritage' and it will be a holiday for everyone in China, regardless of whether they shop or not,” said film director Feng Xiaogang, who directed the Alibaba show.

Music producer and Alibaba Music Group Chairman Gao Xiaosong, who appeared as a host on the program, agreed: “Maybe in a few years, many old holidays will be lost,” he said. “But the ‘Double-11' will survive, because this is a holiday from the grass roots.” And Alibaba.

Tommy Yang, Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report. 

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Update

4:40 p.m.: This story was updated to include additional analyst comment.

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