February 4, 2015
In China, every new website is required to register with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which regulates new media. When the ministry looked at Playroom, a startup that sells luxury sex toys and accessories, they didn’t like what they saw.
They gave Playroom an ultimatum: take down the condoms for sale, or you can’t register with the government.
So cofounder Jason Ong did what you do in China: he took down the condoms, got approved, and put them back up.
This happened on the heels of a long hassle to incorporate the company, where Ong went back and forth with an agent trying to figure out exactly how to describe what they were doing without raising alarm bells in government offices. The agent consulted her connections in high places, and they finally settled on a description that seemed both true and acceptable.
Officially, Playroom would be selling clothing, oil, cosmetics, skin care products, cleaning products, candles, massage devices, toys, and the catch-all category of “things to control pregnancy.” Mentioning condoms, the agent said, would mean a rejection.
“Things are not always in black and white,” says Ong. “This category is not government-approved, is not disallowed, is not sanctioned – it’s a category that in the government’s eyes is unseen. It’s nonexistent. They choose to ignore the existence of this industry.”
After those two hurdles, Playroom was in business – but it’s not easy being a sex startup in China. Ong wanted to advertise on Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google but with much more emphasis on paid ads rather than organic, SEO-based search results. After filling out pages and pages of documents, he found out that Playroom had been blacklisted. No one in Baidu’s Shanghai office could explain why; the Beijing office ordered the blacklist with no explanation, they said.
Ong also had his account suspended for 10 days on WeChat, China’s most popular social media app. Officially, they told him that a user had complained about pornographic content, but Ong had other suspicions. “This happened around the time of the government crackdown on ‘yellow content,’” he says, referring to porn. “We were not sure if this was Tencent’s way of complying with the government implicitly without upsetting users, or if someone really complained.”
So marketing is a big challenge. With no Baidu ads and with social media accounts that might be shut down at any moment, Playroom turned to traditional media advertising – and most magazines said no. Even an ad network, which places advertising on multiple websites, told him that most sites wouldn’t want Playroom’s money.
Their problem is twofold: a widespread fear of repercussions from the government, and a genuinely conservative culture – or, at least, more conservative than in the West. Even finding translators, interns, and temporary event staff proved difficult.
Yet China is full of sex shops, and you can buy condoms at every convenience store. Maybe that’s the problem – when people think sex shop, they think dark, red, black, and shady. Playroom may be pink, bright, and cute, but they’re up against years and years of stigma.
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