Like it or not, product placement and corporate sponsorship play a major role in the Vietnamese pop music industry. In the US, the general public usually reacts negatively to any hint of corporate sponsorship when it comes to things that we consider sacred -- things that are connected to the arts (music, film, etc.) or represent a philosophical belief. Kendall Jenner found that out the hard way when she was featured in a controversial Pepsi commercial this year. For a country with deep capitalist roots, it's strangely not culturally okay to capitalize on one's fame to maximize the amount of dollars that one would get for so-called "selling out." In America, selling out is when a person willingly compromises their integrity or authenticity for monetary gains.
If you are a long time reader of this site, then you may have noticed that I like to joke about Đông Nhi's Pepsi money. It's kind of a running joke that I like to use whenever there's blatant product placement in a music video. I am not sure how the Vietnamese audience feels about product placement, but it can be very distracting coming from my personal American point of view. There's usually a certain limit to how much product placement a music video or film can have before it becomes too much for me. The product placement in some of these Vpop MVs, however, are so blatant that I feel like I have no choice but to acknowledge it in someway. In a recent Vpop MV, rapper Mr. A literally cracked open a Pepsi can out of nowhere to bring everything to a screeching halt.
In Asian countries, it seems culturally okay to "sell out." In Korean culture, pop stars are often featured in commercial films (aka CFs). A CF is essentially a generic term for a TV commercial. When used in talking about pop music, a CF describes a music video done by a popular artist, or artists, to promote a particular brand. In American culture, an artist would be called a "sellout" for participating in such activities; however, starring in CFs is seen as a badge of honor in Korean culture. It's an indication that one has made it in the world. A CF can also be called a CM. In Japan, a TV ad is sometimes referred to as a "commercial message." In short, the concept of a pop music CF/CM can be foreign to a Western audience, but it is an acceptable and common way in which brands promote their products in Asian countries.
It is interesting to note the cultural differences in how natives view corporate sponsorship in their respective music and entertainment industry between the East and West. I would guess that the Vietnamese are more open to corporate sponsorship in their pop music (like how South Koreans are) than American citizens would be. Music is often used as an art form to express opinions that are anti-establishment in nature. Just look at rock and roll and hip-hop music for example. In the US, large corporations represent the establishment -- the haves of society. Therefore, it becomes problematic when music representing the rebellious, young have-nots of society in the US gets intertwined with corporate sponsorship. I would guess that this problem would not applied in Vietnam since capitalism is essentially anti-establishment in a communist country.
Talking about cultural differences, the Asian music industry differs greatly from how the Western music industry runs in many regards. The standard Western practice of putting out a 12-plus-track album that took multiple years to write and record isn't going to cut it for an Asian artist. First off, who's going to fund that project? And secondly, who's going to buy that album? I'll tell you who....No one! There's way too much risk involved with little return to produce a full length album. In this age, no one is going to buy that album when everything is instantly available to be downloaded or streamed for free. Selling physical copies of an album just doesn't work anymore. Moreover, it does not make sense to put all the time and effort to create a full album when most people nowadays only care to listen to the hottest new singles. Therefore, the music industry has adapted and evolved in countries like South Korea and Vietnam where online connectivity -- which seems to promote a little bit of ADHD in all of us -- is widespread. Sure, full length albums made sense in the past when it was difficult to record and distribute high quality music. But with the technology nowadays, mini-albums and singles just make more financial sense.
To actually make money in this age, Asian artists often have to do more than just sing. Making regular TV appearances is one activity which an Asian artist must do in order to stay relevant. In a country like Vietnam, where there's tight government control over broadcast media, artists can't bank on radio promotion to get their music out there. In the US, listening to the radio on our daily commutes is still a thing. I guarantee you that no one is doing that on their motorbike in Vietnam. Instead, they are too busy transporting 3 kids, 2 chickens, and a giant container of ice while weaving through traffic. All that free radio air time that American artists get -- that doesn't exist for a Vietnamese artist. Instead, they have to make TV appearances. Consequently, it's very common to have Asian singers cross into the TV and film industry. Singing is essentially a small stepping stone into the entertainment industry for some artists. When singers are making next to nothing on music sales (since everything is so freely available on the internet now), they have to make their money somewhere. It can be through TV and film appearances or through the more common revenue stream of endorsing products and advertising.
Getting an endorsement deal is pretty much what most artists shoot for. One of the reasons why I joke about Đông Nhi's Pepsi money (other than the blatant corporate sponsorship) is because that is where all the money seems to be at right now. Getting an endorsement deal with a beverage company for a Vpop singer is like getting a shoe deal for a basketball player. It kind of legitimizes you as a superstar in the same way a big shoe contract would legitimize an upcoming star athlete. There's mad money to be had in the beverage endorsing game. These foreign beverage brands (Pepsi, Budweiser, etc.) have deep pockets, and they are looking to spend.
Why are these companies spending so much in marketing their products? If history has taught us anything, it's that branding works. When I was younger and much more naive, I simply thought drinking Heineken was something unique to my Vietnamese household. It wasn't until I reached the age to legally drink myself that I found out that EVERY Vietnamese person around drinks Heineken. If you ever have been to a Vietnamese party, then you probably ran into someone slamming Heinekens down like there was no tomorrow. Here's a tip for anyone attending a Vietnamese party -- if you are looking for something to bring to the event, pick up a 12-pack of Heinekens or a bottle of cognac if you want to be real fancy. At this point in time, drinking Heineken and Hennessy has become part of the Vietnamese cultural identity. If you are Vietnamese, chances are someone will hand you a Heineken at some point in your life -- most likely as soon as you are old enough to drink.
Why do Vietnamese people drink Heineken and Hennessy? It didn't just randomly happen. It's all due to the power of branding. If you look at who spends the most money marketing in the Vietnamese market, you will probably see both Heineken and Hennessy near the top. Heineken is a big time sponsor in the music and live entertainment industry in Vietnam. For example, a huge New Year's countdown party is held every year by Heineken, and the Heineken Green Room is another big budget event held with international DJs and Vietnamese singers while Hennessy sponsors the H-Artistry live music experience as well as other nightlife events. It's similar to how Hennessy became popular with the American black community through music and racial inclusion. Both Heineken and Hennessy have invested heavily in the Vietnamese audience, and their investments are now paying off.
In recent years, the American beer brand Budweiser has been stepping up their investments in the Vietnamese market. But compared to the Dutch Heineken beer company -- a long time investor who partnered with local Vietnamese brewers and started brewing locally under the Heineken Vietnam Brewery company in 1991 -- Anheuser-Busch is still playing catch up when it comes to brand awareness and market penetration. It will be almost impossible now to dethrone Heineken as the go-to Western beer (especially for foreign born Vietnamese), but the Anheuser-Busch company definitely has the deep pockets necessary to carve out a larger slice of the Vietnamese beer drinking market. Reaching into those deep pockets, the Budweiser brand held their own big EDM party at the end of 2016 with their "All Eyes On Us" music festival featuring Afrojack, Tóc Tiên, and Suboi.
When I was in Vietnam in 2016, I went to an EDM festival. I wasn't at all surprised that one of the sponsors was Hennessy. What was surprising to me though was that a chocolate milk brand geared towards teenagers was also one of the major sponsors. Chocolate milk isn't a party favor that I have ever encountered before at a rave. But in Vietnam, that's how things are -- Choco Boom representatives were handing out free product trying to get kids hooked on that dank energy drink life. It seems like a very common practice these days for beverage companies to focus their marketing towards teenagers, and what better way to do that than by getting their favorite idols to endorse their products. Just ask dat boi Soobin. He had not one but three endorsement deals to promote a teenage beverage drink this summer.
The beverage advertising game is hot right now, and I don't see why Vpop artists shouldn't capitalize on their hard-earned success to make a little bit of extra cash because there's no way Vpop artists get paid enough through song sales alone. The Vpop music industry seems to function like a F2P game these days where the real money is made through secondary means down the road. Therefore, I'm okay with Vpop artists "selling out." But coming from my American perspective, there are still things in the Vpop advertising game that make me flinch -- like when a boy band geared towards teenagers is used to promote an adult beverage and like when Đông Nhi sells out so hard that it makes me think of this Wayne's World clip.
From Choco Boom to Cocobay, Đông Nhi is definitely the queen of the Vpop CF. She's getting that ad money like nobody's business. Like it or not, product placement and corporate sponsorship is here to stay in the Vpop industry. You can either get mad and take an idealistic view of how the music industry should function, or you can take a more pragmatic view and accept the fact that corporate sponsorship is a necessary part in making Vpop a bigger success. Personally, the American in me doesn't like the fact that Vpop is so reliant on sponsors, but I have made peace with it. All I can do now is continue to joke about Đông Nhi swimming in that sweet, sweet HFCS-infused Pepsi money and enjoy the ride.