Uber is beginning to gain traction in China. A leaked memo from the company’s COO revealed last month that the Middle Kingdom will be Uber’s focus market over the coming years. After years of toe-dipping, it seems that the ride-share giant may finally have an inroad in the world’s largest economy.

So how does a competing local company with a medium-to-small market share attempt to nip Uber in the bud? Last week, one of China’s homegrown services released a particularly aggressive ad campaign to do just that. 

75321ff1b9d70ad2cf55_size500_w1080_h1626Car service company Shenzhou gathered together ten high-profile celebrities and released a series of posters on their Weibo page with the slogan ‘Beat U: I’m Afraid Of The Black Car.’ 

The ads have a distinct PSA feel, and warn against illegal car services, calling on women to avoid the services for their own safety. Uber’s for-profit civilian ride-sharing model is banned nationwide in China, but they have adapted with low cost black car services and not-for-profit ride-sharing, both of which fall in a legal loophole.

The company apparently underestimated China’s netizens however, and in the past few days the company has received a digital lashing for scaremongering, while the celebrities have been attacked for being “money grubbing.” There was even a series of mock ads using the same template with the slogan ‘Beat Shenzhou.’

All in all, it was a swing and a miss for Shenzhou on the front of self-righteousness, but they did manage to occupy a viral corner of the Chinese web for a few days, which can’t hurt in a market as competitive as China. 

And it’s not the first time this year that a Chinese company has shelled out major dollars to fund a smear campaign against a western company. In April, one of the country’s largest video streaming companies released a parody of Apple’s iconic 1984 ad as part of a promotion for its new smartphone, the ‘Le Superphone.’ 

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LeTV’s high-budget parody of Apple’s iconic 1984 went viral just as the company hosted a US launch.

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LeTV CEO Jia Yueting was criticized for posting a Hitler cartoon with an Apple sash on Weibo in April

Unlike Shenzhou’s PR blunder, the high-budget LeTV parody was a bit more tongue and cheek, pointing out the iPhone’s growing cult-following in China. Unfortunately, the company’s CEO also released an image on Weibo of a Hitler cartoon with a red Apple arm sash in the same week, which attracted widespread criticism. 

Blunders aside, both the  Shenzhou and LeTV campaigns point to the growing number of Chinese companies that are looking to push back against new western counterparts entering the market. For over a decade, Chinese censorship and rampant IP theft has kept Western companies wary, but as the market begins to modernize foreign players are finding new footholds.

However, while Uber and Apple have managed to make headway, it still remains a tough market to localize in. Linkedin, another successful entrant, is still ironing out issues on the mainland, despite entering several years ago. Last week, it released a China-exclusive app, Red Rabbit, it’s first dual-brand strategy in a foreign market. Banned services like Twitter, Facebook and Google are attempting back door acquisition by targeting companies who are trying to promote globally. 

Both Shenzhou and LeTV’s campaigns also point out that there is a lot of maturing to do in China’s advertising market. Netizens are becoming increasingly critical of the scaremongering that is commonplace among some company strategies. Last week, Chinese internet giant Qihoo 360 was dragged through the mud by online consumers when they released a ‘pregnancy safe’ router. The company later acknowledged that they “were not scientists” and were unaware that WiFi routers are not harmful to unborn babies. 

Image Credit: Shenzhou/LeTV/Weibo