Why a $2B Chinese Gaming Company Put “Dick Strings” on a Billboard in Times Square


2013419850559740The billboard you see on the right, if read literally, says “dick strings.” It was located in Times Square, placed there by Chinese gaming powerhouse Giant Interactive (NYSE:GA), and it reportedly ran there for around a week before someone in charge figured out what it said and had the ad removed for being vulgar.

Ostensibly, the billboard is an ad for a new Giant Interactive fantasy game called Xianxia World that went into its first limited beta last Friday. But to understand why it says “dick strings” in huge characters — and why Giant would advertise a Chinese game in New York city at all — we have to go back a lot further.

“Dick strings” — diaosi in Chinese — is a term that originated several years ago on Baidu’s Tieba forums. As you might expect given its literal meaning, diaosi was not a term of endearment, it referred to people who were: “poor, short, ugly, fat, stupid, excessively-masturbating failures.” ChinaSmack suggests “loser” and “douchebag” as more succinct translations of the term’s official meaning, and both of those seem apt enough.

Over time, though, the usage of the word has changed dramatically. Although it still means “loser”, it has been co-opted by a particular subset of the online community and used as a sort of self-definition. Perhaps similar to the term “geek” in the US or otaku in Japan, diaosi began as an insult but has become something that many Chinese gamers and internet users self-identify as. These days, the term has real appeal to many who see themselves as perhaps not blessed with wealth or beauty, but still passionate about gaming and the internet. It’s a rallying cry and a way of relating to one another that’s self-deprecating but (some would say) also empowering.

Needless to say, this strikes plenty of people as ridiculous. Back in February, Chinese film director Feng Xiaogang kicked off a debate on Weibo about the term when he posted his thoughts on it and “grassroots,” another popular slang term that means poor or “common”:

Calling yourself grassroots is laughing at yourself, calling yourself diaosi is debasing yourself. They are two separate classifications; the former refers to the socially disadvantaged community, the latter refers to the idiot community.

But not everyone agreed with Feng. In fact, Giant Interactive CEO Shi Yuzhu rushed to the defense of the self-defined diaosi, writing “I am a real diaosi,” and then, tellingly, “I have already applied for a trademark for diaosi to use for an internet game.”

"Diaosi goddess" reads this image from the Giant game's home page.

“Diaosi goddess” reads this image from the Giant game’s home page.

Obviously, Shi moved quickly. Two months later the billboard was up in Times Square, and the term was also in use in other marketing materials for the Xianxia World (see left). But as the billboard’s de-listing from Times Square only a week later proves, the term remains controversial, not because it is an insult but because of its vulgar literal meaning: “dick strings.”

In a lengthy analytical piece, Sina Tech argues that the term doesn’t really mean “dick strings,” and points out that other Chinese terms like niubi (“badass”) have rather disgusting literal meanings but have become fairly normalized and acceptable in everyday speech nevertheless. It even (without irony as far as I can tell) points to the controversy surrounding George Bernard Shaw’s use of the term “bloody” in the play Pygmalion as a similar example of a controversy over “vulgar” language that ultimately became rather non-controversial as time passed and people got used to it. And while Shi Yuzhu is no George Bernard Shaw and Chinese internet forums are not Pygmalion, the point is that given time, diaosi won’t be considered too vulgar a term for use in advertising.

Actually, though, it is exactly because the term is vulgar that Shi chose to use it on the Times Square billboard. He and Giant never had any intention of advertising the game to Americans (there isn’t even an English version of Xianxia World); they simply needed a place that would allow the ad to run for a few days because they didn’t understand what it said. Most high-profile advertisers in China would certainly have turned the ad down for being vulgar, but in the US, apparently someone was gullible enough to take the ad without having it translated, and that’s how “dick strings” ended up in huge characters on a high-profile billboard in Times Square.

The point of the stunt was to drum up controversy and attention in China — in such a high profile spot, the billboard was certain to be noticed by Chinese visitors and reporters in the US — and boy did it work. Stories about the ad appeared all over the Chinese press, and then again last week when the ad was conveniently de-listed the day before Xianxia World‘s first beta launched. Even official state media like the People’s Daily and Xinhua covered the news, and of course it also sparked a lot of discussion and long analytical pieces of the sort you’re reading right now or that Chinese gamers have been reading on sites like Sina Tech.

As to whether Giant Interactive really buys into the diaosi mentality or whether it’s all just a cynical marketing ploy is impossible to say, but either way things have certainly worked out well for the company. It got much more attention than the average beta launch for what looks to be just another in China’s vast array of fantasy online games, and self-described diaosi may be poor losers, but a lot of them spend the money that they do have on games. Whether the controversy Shi has drummed up will translate into sales remains to be seen, but he’s put a lot of eyes on his game’s launch, and that’s an important first step.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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