Fans of a popular idol show in China bought millions of dollars’ worth of milk products in a monthslong frenzy, but that wasn’t because they were thirsty.
What they were after were the QR codes that come with the packaging of flavored milk and yogurt, which they scanned in order to vote for their favorite contestants in the talent show. The program was sponsored—you guessed it—by a dairy company.
Much of the millions of bottles and boxes of milk products were resold and donated. But in extreme cases, they were reportedly poured down the drain. The excesses have prompted criticism by Chinese state media as the government has campaigned to ban food waste.
A slew of idol shows modeled after programs in South Korea have taken China by the storm. In these reality shows, contestants spend months living together and competing for spots in a boy or girl group that will debut under a major entertainment company.
While earlier idol competitions asked the audience to vote through text messages, several recent shows, sponsored by dairy brands, ask fans to vote by buying milk products. Fans support their favorite contestants by scanning the QR codes that come with certain types of flavored milk or yogurt.
The intense competition among participants and their fans has turned milk-voting into a million-dollar industry. Fan clubs will typically raise money to bulk-buy milk, and distribute the QR codes printed on the packaging to fans to vote en masse, as each account is allowed limited numbers of votes every day.
During last year’s Tencent idol show Chuang 2020, for example, the top contestants received votes that were worth at least 48 million yuan ($7.4 million) of yogurt, Chinese outlet Southern Weekly reported.
It’s hard to trace where the milk goes after votes are cast. On social media, some fans say they drink the milk themselves—sometimes getting sick from over-consumption—or give them away to friends. Media reports suggest the milk that comes from bulk-buying has been resold at low prices. Some fan groups say they have donated the drinks to charities.
But in an unverified video that went viral last month, several people are seen sitting in front of a wall of boxes that contained the yogurt used to vote for contestants in popular idol show Youth With You 3. They were opening the bottles and pouring the drink into a drainage.
The alleged milk dumping has prompted criticism from the government. In a Tuesday commentary, state-run news agency Xinhua slammed the idol programs for encouraging the young generation to waste food.
“This is seeking profits and attention through waste and squander, a lack of respect for labor, and a contempt and breach of the law,” the article said, citing an anti-food waste campaign endorsed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. “The consequence is to mislead youths and erode their pursuit and values.”
Hours after the commentary was published, the government of Beijing said it had ordered iQIYI, a Nasdaq-listed streaming site, to suspend filming the finale of Youth With You 3, which has Blackpink’s Lisa as one of the judges. The company was told to look into its problems and make corrections.
Authorities did not explain why they shelved the show. It could have something to do with another controversy that erupted over the weekend when a top-rated contestant, Tony Yu Jingtian, was said to have both Chinese and Canadian citizenships. The Chinese government does not recognize dual nationality. Rumors also stated Yu’s family was involved in drugs and sex businesses.
Yu denied having done things that “have a negative impact on society.” But he quit the contest following the government order, citing health reasons.
Entertainment stars in China are required to strictly toe the Communist Party’s ideology. Films and TV shows are sometimes pulled after people report celebrities’ misconduct to authorities. Producers have also resorted to blurring the brand labels or the faces of stars that are deemed problematic.
Youth With You 3 pledged to comply with government regulations on its official Weibo page. It’s unclear when the finale will resume and whether or not the milk votes will still be counted. Fans have questioned if all the efforts they spend on milk-voting will go to waste.
Wiki Su, a 26-year-old viewer of Youth With You 3 in Hong Kong, said she had been casting votes for her favorite participant every day for the past month. She sends money to a fan group and receives photos of the QR codes on milk packaging, but she is not aware where exactly the milk goes.
She said wasting milk was wrong, but she also understood the program needed sponsors to continue running.
“This design has made idol contests a money battle,” Su said. “As a fan I don’t want to get involved in boosting traffic data or milk-voting at all. But this is the only way to make sure the contestant I like has a chance of getting noticed in an increasingly competitive industry.”
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