What are "greasy men" in China?

Isaac Peng & Thomas Ebenfeld, concept m

In unserem heutigen Blog-Beitrag beschreiben unsere Autoren einen ganz bestimmten Menschentyp, der in China als "greasy", also wörtlich fettig, beschrieben wird. Warum diese Beschreibung eigentlich nur Männer trifft, wenig mit Fett zu tun hat und viel über das Geschlechterverhältnis aussagt, erklären sie hier - mit Warnung für Marketingverantwortliche.

When people in the first-tier cities are overwhelmed by the new regulations of recycling in China, we also discover that there is certain 'greasiness' in current media and communication channel that cannot be ignored. The use of celebrities in brand promotion and marketing communication has been extremely popular in Mainland China. To a certain extent, it brings great benefits if a brand chooses the 'right' brand ambassador. By saying that, a few aspects need to be watched for and a local cultural understanding will definitely come in handy. 

"Greasy" is opposite to the word "refreshing" and basically describes something saturated in oil that makes you feel sick. When you picture a "greasy man", what kind of image appears in your mind? Is it an overweight middle-aged man sitting on the sofa, watching TV and devouring fast food? However, in today’s China, when using "greasy" to describe someone, it’s not used to describe their physical appearance or specific food intake, but to describe their unwelcomed personality and behavior - a persona that needs to be very mindful about.

Since 2017, "greasy" has been a popular term in the online world of China and is used by some critics to describe a certain group of middle-aged men – those who’ve “started to lose their goals and passion for life, as well as their principles of what is right or wrong, and those who’ve become so ‘sophisticated’ and use their ‘social experience’ to manipulate younger people for their own self-interest”. These characteristics are strongly associated with Social Darwinism and these people are like the gears of the established social system. The intangible presentation of “grease” is the lubricant that helps this group of men fit better.

An interesting thing about the word "greasy" is that it’s only used to describe middle-aged men. In the current Chinese social and economic structure, Chinese middle-aged men are perceived to have most power and they can also be the biggest influencers compared with other groups, such as woman and younger people. As a result, this group of middle-aged men is expected to be role models, and to take great responsibilities in career, family and the society. Those who fail to fulfill these responsibilities are "losers", those who refuse to play the role are "outcasts", and those who bend the rules for their own benefit are perceived to be "greasy".

Beside the social pressure of responsibility, some Chinese men turned to another direction of being "greasy": they are keen to make a voice and play the leader role in a totally unfamiliar field; they are obsessed with acting like a so-called "dominant CEO" in their life. "Dominant CEO" is used to describe a certain type of personality that is often seen in popular Chinese TV series and movies: these men have a very charming appearance, most of them own big companies and live their life in a perfect order. This image of men stirs up a great sense of omnipotence and this helps us to have a peep into people's collective projections of masculinity. However, this male image tends to have problematic attitudes towards others (e.g. disrespect for women, arrogance and bigotness). Unfortunately, these traits are interpreted by mass social media as 'cool' and ‘manly’, which creates some hot debates between Chinese men and women.

There are even more stories of the word "grease", but we can already see how it further expanded its meaning to include more dislikable traits of middle-aged men. Therefore, for marketers and brands, choosing stars and celebrities to be the spokesman only on the basis of how many followers they have online without taking closer look on how "greasy" they are might be a big risk. Next time, when you hear "grease", pay attention!

Zu den Autoren: Thomas Ebenfeld ist Gründer und Managing Partner von concept m research + consulting. Isaac Peng ist Senior Project Manager bei concept m China.

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