Monday, March 05, 2012

Safe sex, the Lei Feng way

I don't know how I missed this at the time, but I was grateful to the author* of the most recent academic article I've had to edit for drawing my attention to a news story that was briefly a cause célèbre here in China back in 2006.

A trading company called Taotao, from the port city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province, won itself notoriety for marketing condoms (a three-pack for 18 kuai; definitely the budget end of the market) using the image of Comrade Lei Feng, an iconic do-gooder heavily promoted as a model citizen in numerous propaganda campaigns from the early 1960s onwards.

Lei Feng's public image was austerely virginal, but he liked to think of himself as a "good screw" in the Communist machine, a screw that would "never come loose" and "never rust".

Moreover, as Zhang Zhiwen, a "spokesman" for (and, in all probability, sole proprietor of) Taotao aptly pointed out:
"Lei Feng would have supported safe sexual conduct and responsible family planning, I believe."

Drawing on one of the most enduring images of Lei Feng as a tireless darner of socks, both his own and other peoples' - with 'socks', of course, being a more or less universal metaphor for condoms, but another potentially rather negative association for this advertising campaign - Zhang slyly added: "Our condoms are stronger than his socks. He would not need to repair them."

Sadly, Mr Zhang's irreverent little enterprise was promptly squelched - but not overtly in the name of protecting Lei's saintly image; no, he was deemed to have obscurely contravened local regulations on "erotic content" by including in the packaging certificates proclaiming the lucky bearer to be an 'Official Horndog' or a 'Male Virgin' - a marketing ruse designed to appeal to teenagers. This was evidently rather too successful, as Taotao was brought down by the complaints of an irate parent. There is no IP protection for the image of a dead person in China, but Zhang had laid himself open to regulatory reproof by rashly using UN and Public Security Bureau logos on his 'certificates'. One report alleged that he didn't have a valid business licence either. However that may be, it would appear that he got closed down pretty damned quickly. That's what you get if you mess with a national hero here.

This was round about the same time that an online Lei Feng game was launched (if you darned enough socks, you could win a personal audience with Chairman Mao!), but that was an altogether more earnestly respectful venture. It does not appear to have been very much more long-lived than Mr Zhang's ill-fated condoms, though. Lei Feng doesn't really inspire very much reverence any more; in fact, for the younger generation he has become simply a joke.

However, the would-be uplifting Learn from Comrade Lei Feng! campaign still continues. Today, in fact, is Lei Feng Day - the 50th since Mao inaugurated the movement in 1963, six months after the young hero's tragic death. For this one day, at least, we should all get out there and try to be the best screw we can be.

* I don't owe this author gratitude for anything else. His article was the usual mish-mash of mangled irrelevancies; most of it, in fact, extended misquotations from Stefan Landsberger's excellent book on Chinese Propaganda Posters.


John said...

The thing I love the most about the Lei Feng myth is that he only lasted two years in the people's army! It's a poor testament indeed that someone you choose to be idolised you then send off to die. Then again, he probably gave his life (allegedly) to save a hundred more, or something.

Froog said...

No, the story is that he was guiding a colleague in backing up a truck, and the truck ran into a telegraph pole which fell on top of him.

It's such a low-key, unglamorous demise, it rings true - it's the one element of the legend that makes you think the guy really did exist. (And I saw an interview a few years ago with a guy who was supposedly a colleague in the army, possibly the truck driver or at least someone who was present at the accident, and he seemed quite genuine, quite convincing.)