The Marketing Genius Behind Hong Kong's Celebrity School Tutors

Some of the biggest superstars in Hong Kong are not singers, actors, or models — although captivating billboard advertisements showing smiling, attractive, perfectly coiffed 20-somethings might suggest it. It turns out that some of Hong Kong's most glamorous and popular young stars have gained fame in their roles as celebrity tutors, sort of educational superstars, with thousands of dollars in marketing fees behind them to help perfect their image.

The tutors' ability to capitalize on Hollywood marketing strategies to build mini-tutoring empires is, on the one hand, an impressive feat that brings rare glamour into the educational field. But the fear is that their celebrity status doesn't always correlate with superstar educational powers, and may portend a new international trend toward flashy, overly commodified education.

A recent New York Times feature on the bizarre prominence of these "cram school" tutors highlights how educational success has become increasingly commodified in Hong Kong, to a fascinating extreme. Many of the tutors are affiliated with special test-prep schools like New Beacon College, which help market and advertise their tutors and boast compelling numbers to support their claims to help students excel on standardized tests. A number of these tutors reportedly earn a salary that Slate claims is roughly double that of regular Hong Kong school teachers, who only bring in around $60,000 a year. 

To gain this high-paying celebrity status, the tutors participate in expensive modeling photo shoots broadcasted across Facebook fan pages that function like personal shrines without much focus on educational substance. While "cram schools" help shape their image, tutors often compete with each other for clients, and invest their own time and money in building their empires in order to rake in a larger cut from their agencies. "Tutors often spend weeks consulting stylists and makeup artists before production," writes Grace Tsoi in the New York Times. Some have their own music videos. Some even sell their own branded products like stationary and sticky notes. 

Flashy advertisements lining highways and shopping malls show young, attractive, well-dressed tutors that promise to help students ace their university entrance exams and English language tests. And students come to these tutors in droves for extra help. One report released by Mark Bray, director of the University of Hong Kong's Education Research Center, found that almost three-quarters of Hong Kong's high school seniors use an outside tutoring service on top of regular schooling. 

But the phenomenon has provoked major criticism. It seems clear that these tutorial institutions can take emotional and financial advantage of students who already face a high-stress, exam-oriented education system. Hong Kong lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen told the New York Times that the tutorial centers were damaging children and Hong Kong's education system. "The marketing and promotional campaigns of tutorial centers," he said, "are like a form of psychological warfare...they succeed because they manipulate the minds of students and parents."

What's more, the quick-fix, shortcut mentality of the competitive exam-prep tutoring business has encouraged such a results-oriented agenda that it has led to some precarious situations in which tutors have tried to get ahead. One young tutor, Karson Oten Fan Karno, was investigated in 2008 according to the Straits Times Asia Report over a "purported leak involving exam questions."

On the one hand, encouraging a little superstar style in the education field is not all a bad thing. With a bit of marketing genius behind them, Hong Kong's tutoring giants offer, in theory, a unique strategy that promotes the popularity of smart young citizens in place of conventional Hollywood stars. But the overly competitive nature of the industry is clearly dangerous. It brings a superficial business model into the field of education and suggests a darker side to this booming industry — one that hopefully will not turn into a broader international phenomenon.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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