Meet China’s most trusted doctor, researcher, professor and entrepreneur – an American stock photo model

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016/6/15 21:43:00

The Seattle college professor's photo has been used in many ads in China. Photo: Internet

He is best known as Wellin Boss, the fertilizer expert from a famous commercial.

But that's not all.

Over the years, the distinguished, white-bearded figure has also become known as the chief executive designer of a furniture company, the face and founder of Old John paint, a Harvard professor specializing in water heater technologies, a British interior designer who studied at Venice Art College, a medical specialist who's dedicated years of research to prostate health, and a trustworthy real estate tycoon who can recommend all the right properties to invest in.

His face has appeared in so many advertisements that he has become known as a dear friend to many Chinese consumers. All of which begs the question - who is he really?

Over the years, that riddle has tugged at the curiosity of countless Chinese Net users, as the apparent renaissance man evolved from the face of myriad trusted brands to a veritable pop culture icon. That's why Metropolitan has taken it upon itself to dive into this mystery, and attempt to uncover who Wellin Boss really is, and how he came to be the face of consumer confidence in China. 

How popular is he?

A search for "Wellin Boss" on Chinese search engine baidu.com yields more than 2 million results, many of which are dedicated to exploring who this man is, admiring his amazing life achievements, Photoshopping him into all kinds of scenes and spinning make-believe biographies and interviews with him.

"Wellin Boss" even has his own Facebook page, which was likely set up by one of his fans in China, with a headshot of the gentleman himself - a rare one of him smiling, rather than the thoughtful, serious expression with which he most frequently appears.

Though the familiar face has now appeared in many ads, his fame started around 10 years ago with a commercial for Jinkela fertilizer.

Jinkela which literally means "gold dirt," first began to draw attention with its entertaining commercials. Ads claimed that the fertilizer (which is no longer being sold) was produced by the American Shengdiyage Agricultural Group, "Shengdiyage" being a Chinese transliteration of San Diego. Their spokesperson was Wellin Boss, who they claimed was a fertilizer expert who'd invented the product.

In their most famous commercial, a Japanese man and an African man chase down a truck hauling Jinkela fertilizer, and then begin fighting over who should be able to take it. The driver - an American guy in business attire - steps from the truck and comes between them, asking the two to state why they deserve the fertilizer. As each explains why his country needs it more, Wellin Boss' face stares serenely from the side of the truck and the label of each bag.

The commercial drew attention not only because all three characters were foreigners, but because it featured a kind of cartoonish fun, as evidenced by their lines - rhyming, largely shouted declarations that boasted a kind of staccato catchiness.

The recent emergence and development of video-sharing websites, such as acfun.com, accelerated the spread of this quirky ad. It was in 2009, around the time that many of these sites started taking off, that spoofs of the commercial created by Net users began to spread across the Internet like wildfire, transforming the ad into a cultural phenomenon.

A search for the keyword "Jinkela" reveals more than 10,000 results on acfun.com. The most popular ones have each been viewed millions of times.

It wasn't long before Net users started to notice that the man they'd come to know as Jinkela's founder had also become the face and spokesperson for many other brands. In the years since, he has become celebrated as a beloved "grandpa," famed for his many impressive identities.

"Wellin Boss is my idol, who offers [me] spiritual guidance," joked Li Xin, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who owns a cultural exchange company in Beijing. A self-proclaimed geek when it comes to subcultures, Li was one of many whose imagination was captured by Wellin Boss.

The fame of the American stock photo model who's become known as "Wellin Boss" is evidence of how some Chinese brands love using foreign faces on their products.Photo: Li Hao/GT

The man behind the photo

As it turns out, the photo can be traced back to Getty Images, an American stock photo agency, where it bears the creative title "Businessman." Other keywords used to describe the picture include "grey," "leaning," "beard," "active seniors," "serious," "70-79 years" and "hand on chin."

Though the identity of the model himself has been lost to the sands of time, not so for the woman who took the pictures back in the 1990s - an American photographer named Barbara Penoyar who said she had no idea that the photo had found such traction in China.  "How funny!" she marveled in an email to Metropolitan. "This just makes my week! I am very proud to see his image receiving so much love in China - he seems to be a much bigger hit there!"

Penoyar doesn't know the gentleman's name but said she believes he was a professor at a university in Seattle, which is one reason why he was such a successful choice for this particular shoot.

"Our intent with this portrait was to create a feeling of trust, success and knowledge," Penoyar said. "He came with his own wardrobe, so this is how he really appears in life."

Though two decades have passed since taking the pictures, Penoyar still has a strong memory of the shoot. "[He was] not a model but someone who did some work in community theater. He smelled pleasantly of pipe smoke! During our portrait session he was super professional and somewhat serious," she said.

The shoot produced a number of photos featuring various poses. For the particular image that went viral in China, Penoyar asked him to connect with her like he would with a university student seeking advice.

Penoyar said that she has also seen the image on the labels of several products in the US, such as healthcare brochures. In fact, back when Penoyar did a lot of stock photo work, she frequently saw her works on all sorts of products, from cereal boxes to insurance advisements. Today, she is a fashion photographer specializing in men's wear.

American photographer Barbara Penoyar is happy to see her work, which was shot two decades ago, receiving so much love in China. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Penoyar

Associations of foreign faces

"Without looking it up online, I would have thought, 'Oh God, Jinkela must be so reliable and so fancy!' After all, they've got foreign experts to back them up," Li said. "But after doing some research, you realize this is nonsense."

Though he admits that Wellin Boss' image successfully conveys the idea of authority and professionalism, Li is cynical about the practice of Chinese companies using foreign faces in an attempt to project credibility. "Maybe he's just a janitor, like any janitor surnamed Wang [in China]?" he said. "There's no way he knows that he is so famous in China. Otherwise he'd probably be suing for misuse of his image." 

In China, many companies use Western (or  Western-sounding) names as well as faces to better promote their products. "[Using a foreign face] is seen as a recipe for success in the advertising world, I think," Li said.

Among the most famous cases of a Chinese brand basing its success on a foreign representative is that of Qiaodan Sports. American basketball legend Michael Jordan recently sued the company for illegal use of his name, as Qiaodan is the Chinese transliteration of Jordan, the Xinhua News Agency reported. 

In Wellin Boss' case, Li thinks that "he is not only a foreigner, but also from the US, which has a reputation among Chinese for being the most advanced in terms of technology and research." This, he said, is one reason why so many brands would likely think consumers would trust him more. 
In the end, Li said, the attraction of "spokesmen" like Wellin Boss, boils down to a retrograde mindset among many Chinese people that worships foreigners and foreign products.

From commercial stunt to Internet meme

 "I believe there will be more Wellin Bosses, Professor Marks, and Dr Georges emerging in all sorts of fields of research in the future," Li said. "They will enhance the public's trust in certain brands or certain products, and meanwhile provide more material for Internet memes."

According to Li, it wasn't just Wellin Boss' apparent integrity, intelligence or trusthworthiness that first helped him become a minor pop culture celebrity - it's the fact that hokey commercials like that for Jinkela have been revived as fodder for the online community, especially those who enjoy creating memes.

"After all, being entertaining is the key," he said. Though Li dismissed video memes like this in the beginning, he soon became hooked on them, and often checks video-sharing websites for new ones.

He added that Wellin Boss has also earned memes of his own, appearing on stickers, digital illustrations sent through messaging apps and social networking platforms.

"Thanks to the combination of Internet platforms and online subcultures, this commercial [from years ago] has become hot again," he said.

However, he also acknowledged that the audience is comparatively small compared to some pop culture trends. For example, Li's wife doesn't know anything about either the commercial or the man.

"It's only a subculture," he said.


Newspaper headline: Searching for Wellin Boss


Posted in: Metro Beijing

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