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Tea Leaf Nation

Watch Frank Underwood Advertise China’s Black Friday

'One burner phone is never really enough. I’d order 10 if I were you.'

frank-angry 2

On Nov. 11, at the stroke of midnight Beijing time, millions of Chinese sitting behind their computers or cradling their mobile phones began purchasing cell phones, handbags, and clothing at cutthroat prices. By the end of Nov. 11, analysts expect these eager consumers will have spent at least $11 billion. Today is Singles’ Day. It’s the largest one-day online sales bonanza in the world, although many outside of China have never heard of it.

That may be about to change. On Nov. 10, Kevin Spacey appeared as his alter ego, Frank Underwood, from the hit Netflix political drama House of Cards, to help Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and its platform Tmall advertise for the annual event:

“If I were allowed to shop on your Singles Day, I wonder how cheap I could get a new burner phone,” Underwood suggests to his Chinese audience. “One burner is never really enough, is it. I’d order 10 if I were you.” The ad appears to be working. In the first 90 minutes of the sale, according to Alibaba, users had already dished out more than $5 billion dollars — 74 percent from mobile phones alone.

In 2009, the Chinese retail giant took an unofficial tradition begun in the 1990s by lonely college students and re-imagined it as a commercial holiday. This year, Alibaba has recruited major celebrities from James Bond actor Daniel Craig to American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert to spread the word about Tmall, the Chinese retail giant’s business-to-consumer platform.

Even in this group, Spacey is first among equals. House of Cards, a drama that depicts U.S. politics as a vicious, Hobbesian endeavor in which the most brutal and conniving enjoy the greatest spoils, is wildly popular in China, particularly among high-ranking officials. (President Xi Jinping referred to the show in an October speech before tech leaders in Seattle.) The ad, accompanied by Chinese subtitles, does not appear to be aimed at U.S. consumers; Singles’ Day sales occur almost exclusively on Chinese-language websites.

The ad contains at least one irony, which may be unintentional. “Here at the White House there are so many firewalls blocking me from shopping online,” says Underwood in his thick, authoritative Southern drawl, “that not even the President will be able to take advantage of those amazing deals you’ll see online during this holiday.” The vastest firewall on earth, of course, is China’s, which keeps out U.S. websites including Facebook, Twitter, and the New York Times. Private networks can jump the wall, but they are effectively illegal. If President Xi wanted to see how Twitter users reacted to the video, he’d have to contravene his own country’s unwritten rules – or hop on a plane.

Image: Netflix/Fair use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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