Making product recommendations is a science of its own
“Merchants and robbers show courage by viciously fighting for profits and property, showing no mercy, mindful only of gain,” philosopher Xunzi (荀子) sneered in the third century BCE, referencing the Confucian caste system that ranked practitioners of commerce firmly on the bottom rung beneath scholars, farmers, and artisans, barely a step above common criminals.
The philosopher would most definitely be aghast at the cult of Li Jiaqi today: The 28-year-old live streamer, who got his start by reviewing cosmetics on e-commerce platform Taobao, has been hailed as a “demon” of commerce due to his extraordinary “带货能力 (dàihuò nénglì),” ability to hypnotize viewers into buy anything. Li is credited by Taobao for stimulating over 1 billion RMB’s worth of sales during last November’s “Single’s Day,” and his ecstatic catchphrases—“Oh my God!” and “Buy it! Buy it! Buy it!”—spawned several imitators who have gone viral in their own right, ranging from a fire marshal in Jiangsu province to a 9-year-old boy.
Most ordinary folks don’t profit from recommending products to their friends and family, but their word-of-mouth promotion is no less important to the modern economy—it’s the raison d’etre of apps like Dianping and Xiaohongshu, after all. Whether it’s by discovering a niche fashion brand or starting the conversation on an avant-garde film, many people strive to be the “influencer” of their social group, to the extent that there is a special term for their pushiness: “卖安利 (mài Ānlì, selling Amway),” after the American direct-sales company notorious for their aggressive marketing tactics.
The term can be used self-deprecatingly as either a verb or noun,to convey one’s obsession with a new find:
I’ve found a super effective facial mask. I have to Amway it to you!
Wǒ fāxiàn le yì kuǎn chāojí hǎoyòng de miànmó, bìxū Ānlì gěi nǐ!
Bro! Eat my Amway! The Dongpo Pork at this restaurant is practically art!
Xiōngdi! Chī wǒ Ānlì! Zhè jiā diàn de Dōngpō Ròu jiǎnzhí shì yìshù!
Fans of certain celebrities and subcultures have, of course, been experts at selling their favorite works or idols long before there was a word for it:
You must see this movie! The story! The cast! The costume!The atmosphere! You can’t find a flaw!
Nǐ bìxū děi kàn zhè bù diànyǐng! Nà jùqíng! Nà zhènróng! Nà fúzhuāng! Nà fēnwéi! Yíqiè dōu wúkě tiāotì!
But a good “Amway seller” knows that just raising one’s voice or adding exclamation marks is not enough to clinch a deal. This has led a number of folk sayings and internet slang terms usually associated with street vendors to creep into everyday recommendations among friends, like “走过路过不要错过！( Zǒuguò lùguò búyào cuòguò! Walk past it, but don’t miss it),” “入股不亏，稳赚不赔！(Rùgǔ bù kuī, wěn zhuàn bù péi! Costs nothing to join, earns steady gain without loss),” “过了这个村儿就没这个店儿! (Guòle zhège cūnr jiù méi zhège diànr! You won’t find this shop after you pass this village).”
Don’t miss this! A god-like idol with good looks and talent! Costs nothing to check it out, and you won’t be disappointed!
Zǒuguò lùguò búyào cuòguò! Shénxiān àidòu, yánzhí néng dǎ, zhuānyè zàixiàn! Rùgǔ bù kuī, wěn zhuàn bù péi!
You need to buy a gym membership card sooner or later, so just buy it right now! As the saying goes, “After you pass this village you won’t find this shop.” You’ll never find such a great deal again!
Nǐ chízǎo dōu děi bàn jiànshēnkǎ, bùrú xiànzài bàn! Súhuà shuō “guòle zhège cūnr jiù méi zhège diànr.” Yǐhòu kě méiyǒu zhème dà de zhékòu le!
More recent advertising slogans have also appeared in everyday parlance. Health brand Yilishen may have been prevented from trading due to fraudulent claims that its “ant extract” pills can improve men’s virility, but its ad slogan “谁用谁知道 ( Shéi yòng shéi zhīdào. You’ll know when you use it)” remains used even today:
The magic of this anti-hair loss shampoo: you’ll know when you use it!
Zhè kuǎn fángtuō xǐfǎshuǐ de shénqí, shéi yòng shéi zhīdào!
Menswear brand Seven’s claim that “男人就该对自己狠一点 (Nánrén jiù gāi duì zìjǐ hěn yìdiǎn, Men should be tough on themselves)” is a popular method of convincing people to splurge on high-end products.
These earphones are expensive, but the sound quality is really good! Just buy them! People should be tough on themselves!
Zhè fù ěrjī suīrán guì, dànshì xiàoguǒ shì zhēnde hǎo! Mǎi ba! Zuòrén jiù gāi duì zìjǐ hěn yìdiǎn!
L’Oreal’s iconic line, meanwhile, seems to apply to everything:
Believe me, a dishwasher will completely change your life! Because you’re worth it!
Xiāngxìn wǒ, yì tái xǐwǎnjī jiù kěyǐ wánquán gǎibiàn nǐ de shēnghuó! Nǐ zhídé yōngyǒu!
Sometimes, it can be hard to share your enthusiasm over a discovery without making friends think you really did join a multi-level marketing scheme. For fear of turning others off with overly ardent recommendations, some people purposely adopt a “理中客 (lǐ zhōng kè)” style, meaning “reasonable, neutral, and objective”:
I can’t say this brand is great, but it’s pretty good value for the money. If you care more about the quality of the material than design, I think it might be a good choice.
Wǒ bùnéng shuō zhège páizi tèbié hǎo, dànshì xìngjiàbǐ háishi hěn gāo de. Rúguǒ nǐ gèng zàihu zhìdì ér búshì kuǎnshì, nà wǒ juéde zhè shì yí gè búcuò de xuǎnzé.
Others, though, don’t care whether their friends actually take up their recommendation: To them, commerce chat is just another form of small talk, or a strategy to curry favor with the listener by showing consideration for their likes and dislikes:
A new milk tea shop has opened around the corner with your favorite “Da Hong Pao” tea leaves, and the taste isn’t too strong. It suits your tastes perfectly.
Jiējiǎo nàbiān xīn kāi le yì jiā nǎichádiàn, cháyè yòng de shì nǐ zuì xǐhuan de Dà Hóng Páo, wèidào yě bú tài nóng, wánquán fúhé nǐ de kǒuwèi.
It’s not always easy to turn down passionate Amway sellers. Since most people aren’t cool enough to say, “I don’t want it” directly, they look for more polite ways to refuse a pitch. For example:
I heard this movie is highly rated, but I’m too scared to watch horror films.
Wǒ tīngshuō le zhè bù diànyǐng píngfēn hěn gāo, dànshì wǒ bùgǎn kàn kǒngbùpiàn.
Others make clear that they have no need for the product in question:
I like this coat a lot! But I just bought one of the same color. What a shame!
Wǒ hǎo xǐhuan zhè jiàn dàyī a! Dàn wǒ gāng mǎi le yí jiàn tóngyàng yánsè de, tài yíhàn le.
You can distract them by suggesting an unsuspecting third party, who is the perfect audience for this Amway:
A: Come watch this TV drama with me! It is definitely the best of this year!
Kuài lái gēn wǒ yìqǐ zhuījù ba! Zhè bù jù juéduì shì jīnnián zuìjiā!
B: Sorry, I already have a long watch-list! Ask my roommate to watch with you, she likes costume dramas!
Bàoqiàn a, wǒ zǎn le hǎo duō jù méi kàn ne! Qù zhǎo wǒ shìyǒu péi nǐ kàn ba, tā yíxiàng ài kàn gǔzhuāngjù.
Another solution is simply to “Amway” back—as the saying goes, offense is the best defense:
A: Try this liquid foundation! No other product is as easy to apply!
Shì yíxia zhège fěndǐyè! Zài méiyǒu yánzhǎnxìng bǐ tā gènghǎo de chǎnpǐn le!
B: What a coincidence! I have just found this cushioning foundation! It’s so refreshing and light, I bet it would suit you better. Why don’t you try it first?
Zhēnqiǎo, wǒ gāng fāxiàn le yì kuǎn qìdiàn, fēicháng qīngbáo, wǒ gǎn dǎdǔ tā gèng shìhé nǐ! Bùrú nǐ xiān shìshi zhège?
Of course, if this is still too much work, there’s always the classic fallback:
Got it! I’ll look at it later!
Jì xiàlai le! Wǒ shāohòu kànkan!
After all, even Li Jiaqi isn’t magic enough to know if you’ve really checked out his recommendations. Not yet, anyway.
Selling Out is a story from our issue, “Alpine Ambitions.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.