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Temu Is Speedrunning American Familiarity

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Last night, the shopping app Temu, which is not quite a year and a half old, ran its second Super Bowl ad in as many years. It was hard to miss, because the same ad appeared several times, including following the game-winning touchdown. By most estimates, the three times the ad was featured in the middle of gameplay would have cost an eye-watering $21 million alone.

Alongside ads in which Beyoncé announced a new album and Sir Patrick Stewart proposed skinning Peppa Pig to make a football, the content of Temu’s ad was comparatively unremarkable. It had no A-list celebrities or beloved cultural touchstones; not a single heartstring was tugged. Instead, a cast of silent, off-brand Pixar characters saw their wishes for 99-cent toupees and $6.99 jeans granted by an orange-gowned sorceress, who had herself been granted those powers by ordering the magical dress she was wearing from Temu for $9.99. All of this played out under a jingle that encouraged viewers to shop like a billionaire—which is to say to shop constantly, for fun and entertainment, without a moment of regard for price tags. The ad had the milquetoast gleam characteristic of media generated by AI, though beyond aesthetics there’s no indication that that’s the case.

Most companies that spend big bucks on Super Bowl ad time go to great lengths and great expense to make commercials that are plausibly worth the priciest real estate in American marketing—the kind of thing that people might actually like, or at least discuss, instead of merely tolerate. Temu, which was launched by a company in China but caters to a largely American consumer base, took the opposite approach: an ad that wouldn’t have looked out of place during a block of Law & Order reruns or a house-flipping reality show on HGTV but that played over and over again to the biggest audience money can buy. By its third appearance, one of the guests at my Super Bowl party was singing a portion of the jingle—ooh ooh, Temu—to himself, and the rest of us had realized that we’d been pronouncing the app’s name incorrectly all along. (It’s TEH-moo, apparently, as opposed to TEE-moo.)

Temu, if you’re among the uninitiated whom the ad was intended to reach, is one of a wave of fast-growing retailers with ties to China, including Shein and TikTok Shop, that have emerged in recent years. These retailers offer a huge selection of dirt-cheap consumer goods, and they’re competing against one another in a bid ultimately to challenge Amazon’s dominance as the primary intermediary between Chinese manufacturers and the Americans who buy their products. The company’s ad, which is just one part of a larger campaign across media that a recent J.P. Morgan report estimated would cost the retailer $3 billion this year, had performed precisely as intended, at least judging by my party guests. Temu is spending a literal fortune in an attempt to speedrun familiarity among American shoppers.

From the beginning, Temu has seemed to understand that one of the biggest obstacles it faces on its apparent quest to rise to the top of American shopping is simply getting its name out there. The United States is a mature consumer market—Amazon dominates online retail, and Walmart and Target, long a couple of Amazon’s chief digital competitors, also have a chokehold on everyday in-person shopping for much of the country. At the lowest end of the market, Dollar Tree and Dollar General operate tens of thousands of stores in North America, largely targeting customers in poorer or more rural areas. Americans are not exactly at a loss for places to buy weird junk, and it wasn’t clear that they really needed or wanted another one when Temu launched in September 2022. When the company ran its first Super Bowl ad a few months later, not that many people in the U.S. had heard of Temu or its parent company, PDD Holdings, which until recently was headquartered in Shanghai and also operates the Chinese retail giant Pinduoduo.

Over the past few decades, Super Bowl ads—historically the province of powerful consumer brands such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser, and Ford—have become a way for new companies that are flush with investor cash to signal their desired entrance into mainstream consumer consciousness. At the dawn of the millennium, dot-com start-ups such as E-trade and Pets.com bought up all the Super Bowl ad inventory they could get. More recently, ads for cryptocurrency exchanges enlisted stars including Matt Damon and Larry David to introduce the concept to the not-so-terminally online. When most Americans have no clue who you are, what you sell, or why they should buy it, a slick ad in a notoriously expensive moment not only spreads the word about your company to an enormous audience; it also suggests that your company belongs alongside those that have been around so long, they’ve become part of the scenery of American life.

Temu’s ties to China make these associations even more valuable to its future. A majority of Americans have long said they prefer to buy domestically manufactured goods, and a significant number of consumers report being opposed to Chinese-made products specifically. But these preferences start to bend when foreign-made products are cheaper. In practice, almost all Americans now routinely purchase consumer goods made elsewhere. Amazon has contributed mightily to this reality: Slowly but surely, the retailer’s broad offering of products from third-party international sellers, its chaotic user interface, and its huge number of listings created by non-native English speakers seem to be acclimating millions of people to the kinds of transactions that would have seemed intolerably risky a decade ago. Buying directly from a foreign retailer is a step that Temu clearly is betting many of these same shoppers can now be persuaded to take, if the circumstances are right. One of the first hurdles is making sure everyone knows your name.

History tells us that we should be skeptical of businesses trying to use expensive ad campaigns to buy their way into those associations. The dot-com boom busted spectacularly, and the crypto market plummeted with revelations of scams not long after it splashed a lot of cash on TV ads. That Temu is back for a second year is notable, as is the choice to pursue familiarity instead of glitz or buzzy celebrity associations. The absence of picky megawatt stars, expensive licensing for famous songs or characters, and football-specific themes means that the ad will be easy to rerun again and again during all kinds of broadcasts, teaching millions more Americans how to say the app’s name via a simple jingle. The lesson was already spreading before the Super Bowl: Temu has been blanketing previous “shop like a billionaire” ads across other broadcasts all year. (This is perhaps one explanation for Temu’s counterintuitive popularity among older adults, whose shopping habits are thought to be more difficult to change than those of younger consumers who are comfortable shopping all over the internet; older people also watch a lot more broadcast TV.)

This approach is exactly in line with a number of other marketing moves that Temu has made in the past year, which have seen the retailer pouring millions of dollars into surfacing its products in search listings and online-ad placements. Combined with its efforts on TV and elsewhere, these campaigns cost an estimated $1.7 billion. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, those enormous expenditures—along with a smaller campaign by Shein—have been enough to push up the cost of advertising all over the internet. In turn, that has buoyed the fortunes of Google and Meta, which control the bulk of online advertising. It’s also begun to eat into the bottom lines of some of Temu’s competitors, which now must pay higher prices for advertising while Temu undercuts them on the prices of its products.

Last year, Temu did an estimated $16 billion in sales, which was roughly more than three-quarters of Target’s online revenue in 2022. Most industry watchers attribute this unprecedented scale-up to a combination of ubiquity and price—the company is spending a ton to get in front of as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, and it’s selling many of its products at prices so low that they seem mathematically impossible. Temu has been accused of selling goods made with forced labor in order to achieve those prices. The company is also widely believed to be temporarily selling products at a loss in an attempt to buy market share from competitors. (Temu has denied accusations about its working conditions. In a statement to the WSJ, a spokesperson for Temu also denied that the company was losing money in an effort to quickly gain ground on its rivals.) Amazon, too, has tamped down prices for years in order to convert online-shopping skeptics, though it has denied that pushing for lower prices is predatory.

Advertising is both more and less powerful than people commonly believe it to be. It’s almost never enough, on its own, to make a product or service into a phenomenon from scratch; if it were, consumer history wouldn’t be riddled with so many famous failures once hoisted aloft by luxurious marketing budgets. But in the global consumer system, advertising of some sort usually is a necessary pretext for whatever success you’re trying to achieve. Otherwise, it’s rare that many people will even find out your business exists. Temu’s long-term success will depend on a lot more than ads, but if it fails, it won’t be because no one knew its name.

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