What’s with all of the Shen Yun ads?

Photograph of women in traditional Chinese attire performing a dance
Image from lyndenj licensed under CC0 Creative Commons license.

If you live anywhere near a large city, you’ve probably seen the billboards, posters, flyers, etc. showing a woman graciously dancing, inviting you to a traditional Chinese dance performance called Shen Yun.

When I first saw these ads, I thought, “Oh how nice, I love cultural events promoting international art forms.” What set-off my skepticism, however, was the volume of their advertising. I sold billboard and radio advertising in the very early years of my career and have bought a lot of mass media as a marketing director. Using that knowledge, I did some rough math for the Houston area: the potential income from these performances in ticket sales (not factoring for any freebies given out and assuming each show is sold out) minus advertising expenses (that I knew of, which is limited since I don’t have TV and don’t travel the whole city), event rental hall prices, and costs of travel and such for the dance troupe.

I couldn’t make the math work where they would turn a profit.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who noticed their seemingly unlimited promotional budget and got curious; The Guardian has a great investigative piece about Shen Yun that is worth reading as does the Los Angeles Times. Both articles claim the goal of the performances is not to turn a profit from selling tickets, but to promote the agenda of a particular religious group, Falun Gong (Falun Dafa), and gain sympathy of their persecution by the Chinese government.

Which “side” is right? I don’t claim to have an opinion on this. But it’s important to highlight examples like their advertising and events where the goal of the advertising and/or event is different than we would originally assume.

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