Marketing coup or privacy risk? Selling the leavings of your ex

Wan Lixin
An online market is growing for blind box mementoes of former relationships, particularly with a giveaway in the form of stories of what went wrong.
Wan Lixin

Withered roses, knickknacks, a used electric shaver, photos, letters and all and sundry mementoes associated with a previous relationship – these are objects that evoke sadness, regret or even relief about a past attachment.

In the cyberspace, however, these sentimental leavings could also be packed up, randomly, in a blind box, and marketed to purchasers with voyeuristic impulses.

By paying a price that generally ranges from 100 to 1,000 yuan (US$14 to 140) per box – often accompanied by a story – the buyer might experience, vicariously, the sentimental journey or, more often, end up with a pile of trash.

With the so-called Internet Valentine's Day marked on May 20 in China, this new trade in what remained of one's old relationship is worthy of being explored from an ethical and legal perspective.

Only a very small minority are interested in the physical value of these trinkets, while most potential buyers are more drawn by the story behind the objects, with many stipulating explicitly that the story related to the objects should be provided graciously.

To substantiate the authenticity of these objects, some sellers provide screenshots of chats on social media, or personal letters. If these objects are real, then such blatant commercial exploitation of legacy from old attachment could be scrutinized from legal or ethical dimensions.

Especially if these objects end up in the hands of livestreaming hosts who would open the box, with running comment, in a live session, in the hope of drawing viewers.

In many cases, it just provides a novel means of clearing out stock, with some boxes priced at 800 yuan containing no more than such things as fluffy toys, plastic hairpins, or cosmetics – all smacking of the run-of-the-mill fare from the Yiwu wholesale market.

One host unraveled a glittering rose that at first glance seemed to be made of gold but which, upon checking online, turned out to be exactly the same as an item priced at less than 2.85 yuan on a sales platform. Some contained plastic dishes obviously sourced from a nearby grocery store.

While these items are insignificant, daily life objects in themselves, they are sometimes sexed up by love stories so moving and dramatic that they are clearly made up.

According to someone interviewed in a recent report on Shanghai Observer, a local news website, if one is really serious about getting rid of the legacy from a past relationship, it would be more reasonable to simply market them on a second-hand goods platform.

The blind box sales, fueled by rumors that someone obtained a brand-new mobile phone by opening a box, is often a marketing stunt for cheap trinkets, in cahoots with livestreaming hosts eager to inflate their viewership.

It could be more complicated in cases where the purveyed items are authentic.

The Shanghai Observer reported on a woman surnamed Sun who, before moving into a new home, tried to dispose of things belonging to her ex-boyfriend in a blind box. Ironically, she said though that relating her sentimental journey on several occasions in the process had helped her "make peace" with her past. She is now firmly on a path to rejuvenation, according to the report.

In an interview with Shanghai Observer, a dramatist named Xin Lei purchased such a box containing many bills, a ticket to a performance in 2015, and a one-way ticket for a journey in 2022. Xin said the bills and tickets alone sufficed to help piece together a sentimental tale of love. Obviously, Xin preferred to view these as a type of behavioral art where a past life became reconstructed with the help of used objects.

If some blind boxes might lay claim to a certain therapeutic or artistic value, there is a catch: those witnessing or looking on at this catharsis or reconstruction are merely having their voyeuristic urges satisfied.

The ethical ramifications for giving total strangers glimpses into one's intimate past, whether for a healing purpose or profitable motive, should be discussed.

The legal consequence of subjecting private communications to the public glare need not be stressed.

Some legal experts warned that even when a relationship has been terminated, the shared experience or objects peculiar to the relationship should be relegated to the domain of privacy. To give over related information or objects to total strangers is at the very least a highly risky affair.

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