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SHANGHAI (Reuters) - From cut-price apple pies to free iPads, companies in China are transforming Sunday's dreaded consumer rights day into a shopping frenzy, to blunt the impact of being named and shamed in state broadcaster CCTV's annual expose.
McDonald's Corp is discounting pies three years after food safety lapses made it a one-time target of the broadcaster's "3.15" show, while e-commerce giant JD.com Inc is giving away tablet computers over four days of "crazy sales" ending Sunday.
"Companies are being preemptive, making consumer day a positive story," said James Feldkamp, chief executive officer of consumer watchdog MingJian. "If you're going to be a target, at least you're already doing something to balance it out."
The investigative news show, broadcast every World Consumer Rights Day, is in tune with a government drive to boost consumer protection laws and toughen punishments for misleading shoppers. Violations of consumer trust can go viral online in China, especially in sensitive sectors such as food, cars and make-up.
The 3.15 show drew a rare apology from Apple Inc in 2013 after criticizing the iPad maker's customer service, and leveled a similar charge at camera manufacturer Nikon Corp last year. Similar broadcasts have dragged down China sales at McDonald's and KFC parent Yum Brands Inc.
Such is the show's impact that in recent years firms have increasingly prepared for shocks by buttering up consumers.
Ahead of this year's March 15, former target Wal-Mart Stores Inc has deals on electronics and cosmetics on its online supermarket Yihaodian, and a "say no to fakes" campaign echoing government calls to outlaw counterfeit goods. Dealers of fellow victim Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) also have 3.15 discounts.
Not all campaigns are explicitly linked to the day. Online retail giant Suning Commerce Group is giving away 30 million cartons of milk, yoghurt and other dairy products for as little as 20 cents each over five days ending on Saturday.
At McDonald's, the apple pie price cut over Saturday and Sunday is touted as a "3.14" event - a play on the mathematical number "pi". The fast food chain, which gave away 1 million free breakfast McMuffins in China around the same time two years ago, said its pie promotion was in no way linked to 3.15.
JD.com and Volkswagen declined to comment. Suning did not respond to emails seeking comment.
The 3.15 show, similar to CBS network's "60 Minutes" in the United States, may have lost some of its appeal as younger viewers turn to foreign dramas online. Some have even turned to social media to defend targeted firms.
But that does not stop it being feared. People close to CCTV as well as "firefighters" helping firms respond to being targeted said some companies were given advance warning, while others had to scramble to respond after seeing their firm named for the first time on the late-night show.
"Speaking for Wal-Mart, we will watch the show. I am certain every company who services customers will do so," said Raymond Bracy, head of corporate affairs at Walmart China.
The plethora of cut-price offers, however, may dampen the impact on targeted firms among consumers busy snapping up deals.
"It's a carnival for shopping online and I've bought a few things," said Zhang Dasu, a 22-year-old from Shanghai. "I may be too tired to stay up to midnight to watch the show, though."
Additional reporting by SHANGHAI newsroom; Editing by Christopher Cushing