China’s fascination with “the fake smile boy” has not died down

Gavin's embarrassed yet still polite smile has become a social expression for millennial Chinese internet users. Brands are jumping in to embrace this trend.

 |  LIU Yujing
Gavin meme

Gavin meme

By LIU Yujing


Who has the best smile in the world? According to Xiaomi, besides Mona Lisa, the person is “the fake-smile boy”, Gavin Thomas.

Recently, in order to promote its newly released Xiaomi CC mobile phone, Xiaomi has enlisted Gavin Thomas, an American boy who has become a famous emoticon in the global social network with his smiles, in the promo video. In the poster shot for the phone ad, Gavin revealed a cute iconic smirk with missing baby teeth. The caption reads "My smile makes the world smile at me". Xiaomi's Weibo caught the attention of Gavin’s fans, some of whom showed their homemade Gavin memes in the comment area.

Xiaomi poster featuring Gavin Thomas

Gavin Thomas, nicknamed “the fake-smile boy” by Chinese fans, created a profile on Sina Weibo in 2018. Within a day, his followers exceeded one million, and he is now a big influencer on Weibo.

Gavin first gained popularity from a prank video made by his uncle Nick, who has been a humour blogger on Instagram. One day Nick uploaded a video of Gavin being spoofed by him: Nick secretly put a gecko on the head of Gavin, who reacted with a nervous, shy and yet polite smile. It was so funny that it became an internet sensation.

Later, Nick uploaded more of Gavin's funny videos, and Gavin's smile attracted more people, especially those in Chinese social media. Gavin has close to 2.5 million followers on Weibo, but his Twitter followers number is a mere 480,000.

Gavin's family still hasn’t figured out why the child became so popular in China. In their opinion, Gavin's smirk was actually "ancestral" because his father also smiled that way; and Gavin explained in an interview with BBC Chinese: Although Chinese netizens called him “the fake smile boy”, his smile was real.

Gavin meme
Gavin meme

The commercialization of Gavin in China began when a team of agents reached out to Gavin in 2017. At the end of 2017, Gavin's agent, Bryon Austen Ashley, found that there were many comments from Chinese users in Gavin's Instagram account, and they quickly discovered business opportunities. Gavin's agent found a Chinese partner, and after several months of preparation, Gavin opened his Weibo account in 2018. A range of brands, from fashion brands to pet supplies, and many entertainment programs, has sought business cooperation with Gavin.

First as memes, Gavin's awkward yet polite smile has become a social expression for Chinese millennials. Young people are now reluctant to express their feelings with a single positive signal, which is why smirking, or fake smile, became a more expressive way of their emotions.

Gavin’s promo video for a toothpaste brand

The specific brand of Gavin’s smile draws people close, some of whom even feel protective of him. That’s why when Peacebird, a Chinese clothing brand, invited Gavin to China, a large number of internet users expressed their surprise and concerns for the boy. In fact, Gavin is not the only person who has gained fame through meme packages in China, where social media celebrities can gain huge popularity very quickly. Another example is Kwon Yul I(권율이 in Korean), the Korean girl, who also registered on Weibo not long ago. You may soon see marketing campaigns using her image very soon.

권율이, the Korean girl, who also registered on Weibo