‘Einstein’s brain’ among best-sellers on Taobao

One particular advertisement for the product goes a step further to promise a spurt in brain cells overnight, even though it seeks to clarify that no physical goods or services will be delivered.


A virtual product marketed as "Einstein's brain" is among Taobao's top 10 products for 2023. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY

December 29, 2023

BEIJING – Call it what you will — the sellers’ creative genius or the buyers’ love of the bizarre — but a cut-rate, “intelligence boosting” virtual product, marketed as “Einstein’s brain”, has become a coveted trophy among online shoppers on Taobao, allowing it to win a spot on the list of top 10 popular items for 2023 released by the e-commerce platform on Monday.

Sellers of the “brain”, which is priced at a few US cents on Taobao, Alibaba Group’s online marketplace, promise potential customers an IQ as high as the famous German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein.

The product page flaunts the scientist’s iconic photographs, complete with his chevron mustache and frizzy gray hair. One particular advertisement for the product goes a step further to promise a spurt in brain cells overnight, even though it seeks to clarify that no physical goods or services will be delivered.

A top-selling store on Taobao recorded as many as 120,000 orders for “Einstein’s brain” during the high-stakes national college entrance exams, or gaokao, in June.

In addition to the “intelligence boosting” virtual product, a range of other unique products have been embraced by online shoppers. Most of these either offer a certain degree of emotional comfort or have high entertainment value.

For example, the “wake-up-from-love insults”, which is a chat support service for people who suffer from a special condition that fixates them on romance. The service bombards the intended person with messages to coax them out of a bad relationship.

The Taobao popularity list also includes The Art of War, a book written by ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and unexpectedly endorsed by a trendy TV show, baiju-flavored latte, clogs and the mamianqun, or traditional Chinese four-panel skirts.

The novelty quotient of most of these products is behind their immense appeal, which reflects the emotional needs of the younger generation, experts said, adding that young people actively seek self-adjustment and prioritize emotional well-being amid life’s many challenges.

This trend is driving the booming online emotional service business, which is mostly led by young entrepreneurs, many of them fresh graduates or students. They have found creative ways to provide emotional comfort, and at the same time are capitalizing on the growing market, which Taobao estimates to be worth hundreds of billions of yuan.

Wei Xiang, a researcher at the National Academy of Economic Strategy, affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the surging popularity of products that cater to consumers’ emotional needs reflects an improving outlook on economic development, highlighted by a steady drop in the unemployment rate and a reduction in inflation levels.

Hong Yong, deputy researcher in the e-commerce branch of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, said that such novel products often draw inspiration from popular memes or social topics.

“Small and micro entrepreneurs on Taobao are particularly sensitive to these trends. With the improvement of e-commerce infrastructure and supply chains, they can seize hot topics and turn them into tangible business opportunities at a relatively lower cost,” Hong said.

Zhang Jianqian, born in 2002 and raised in Xingtai, Hebei province, was among the first group of young people who found success from selling “fun products” on Taobao that comfort or entertain consumers.

“I often exchanged banter with my friends, and said they were not smart enough. One day I thought, what if I sell ‘Einstein’s brain’? In today’s fast-paced life, people don’t mind spending a few cents to find joy,” he said.

Despite skepticism about the product’s practical value, Zhang said he believes it represents an opportunity to boost confidence before important occasions in life.

Some customer reviews echoed Zhang’s belief. “I am buying self-confidence. I need something to reassure myself that I can do well before a big event,” said Sun Nan, a customer in Beijing.

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