Why Moms Seem to Love Temu

Why Moms Seem to Love Temu

To solidify its footprint in American homes—and with a particular household member—the e-commerce giant is placing value back into the TV broadcast.
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Plastic button-activated rice dispensers. Toothpaste tube flatteners shaped like frogs. Adhesive wall-hanging toothbrush holders. Automatic hand dryers for the bathroom.

Across TikTok, people are sharing clips of their childhood homes stocked with items from online marketplace Temu, jokingly calling their mothers "Temu victims." After the e-commerce platform recently ran not one, not two, but three ads during the Super Bowl (and two more after the game), some users are warning others to protect their parents against developing their own Temu addictions. In an era of home design increasingly guided by breakneck trend cycles and fast furniture manufacturing, aided by major marketplace retailers and microtrend-peddling influencers, everyone has the potential to be a so-called "Temu victim."

Although Temu, a Boston-based company owned by Chinese e-commerce behemoth PDD Holdings (aka Pinduoduo), made its debut less than two years ago, it has already positioned itself as a threat to American online retail giants like Amazon and TikTok Shop. It even surpassed China’s e-commerce titan Alibaba. The shopping app has become so successful by hemorrhaging ultra-cheap merchandise that severely undercuts its competitors; it’s distinctive from other major online retailers in that it allows China-based vendors to sell and ship directly to customers without relying on intermediate distributors. TikTok creators often boast $0 Temu hauls or offer 95-percent discount codes. In the first three weeks of 2024, Temu was downloaded over 31 million times globally, making it more popular than Amazon’s marketplace app, according to Statista.

Still, many were shocked to find that the online $0.99 cent store had the funds to spend an estimated $21 million dollars on Super Bowl ads. "TEMU GOT 3 SUPER BOWL ADS MONEY????" wrote one X user. "Sir, a third Temu ad has hit the Super Bowl," wrote another alongside the famous photo of former White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispering in George W. Bush’s ear.

Despite its fast-growing popularity, many of Temu’s products remain something of a joke online. Several point out that the low prices are an indicator of unethical production and sweatshop labor, as well as shoddy products. The term "Temu victim" has become the de facto label for those ordering tawdry home goods from the app, only opening up the package to find something they did not expect at all. The humor is doubly heightened in light of Temu’s tagline: "Shop like a billionaire."

Perhaps part of the reason for the public reaction to Temu’s Super Bowl ad blitz is because the Super Bowl is a deeply American event, known for its extravagant advertising that features big-budget promotions by domestic brands like Pepsi, Apple, and McDonald’s, with exclusive celebrity appearances. Companies that spend a fortune on pricey Super Bowl ads clearly have their eyes set on growing their American consumer base. Temu’s approach certainly sends the message that it’s making a bid to win over more U.S. shoppers.

What’s more, much of Temu’s branding leans into the cheapness of its products, and the Super Bowl ad was no different. In contrast to the production of Beyoncé’s splashy spot for Verizon, Temu’s 30-second ad featured an animated woman, at the beginning disheveled, opening the app and transforming Disney princess-style, then prancing her way through a world of bargains, gifting her neighbors with $0.99-cent to $9.99 merchandise and dropping Temu boxes around them while a jingle—ooh, ooh Temu—plays in the background. (One X user noted that when the character went from unkempt to seemingly AI-generated princess, her curly hair straightened, and her skin seemed to lighten: "DID SHE TURN WHITE," they wrote.) Low-budget (seeming), persistent, and even slightly incoherent all fit how consumers have come to know Temu. Does it really need to make sense as long as it draws in new consumers?

That marketing ethos translates to the products.

It’s not a coincidence that many "Temu victims" are mothers, if the internet is any indication. Temu has been spending billions in an effort to establish its footprint on the market—according to the Wall Street Journal, the app was the fifth-biggest digital advertising spender in the final three months of 2023—and moms in particular have long been a crucial audience for retailers. In a recent essay for the Atlantic, writer Amanda Mull points to how the company’s ad strategy might play a role in the "Temu victim" mom phenomenon: "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," Mull writes. "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.)"

Temu’s ad strategy is the latest in a long history of niche home gadget marketing toward housewives: Take the early 20th-century introduction of Pyrex dishware; the 1959 "miracle kitchen," which turned out to be early Cold War propaganda; the rise and reign of QVC ("Quality Value Convenience"), the pioneering television home shopping network; or the plethora of infomercial-marketed products now distinctive to the turn of the millennium: the Slap Chop, the ShamWow, the Showtime Rotisserie, and the George Foreman Grill. Most if not all of these products were marketed toward housekeeping women as aspirational goods with some level of practical use, as well as a considered aesthetic.

Today, homes filled with "TikTok-made-me-buy-it" and "as-seen-on-Instagram" goods are commonplace, but Temu’s approach to e-commerce in the social media age seems to be placing value back in the televised broadcast. "Why would Temu pay for a Super Bowl commercial," said one TikTok user after the broadcast. "Please call your parents right now, because they’re going to get scammed if they shop on that site."

Top photo courtesy Temu

Related Reading:

How E-Commerce Changed the Knockoff Furniture Game




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