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Sensitivity in Chinese ads | 争议的广告在中国


Social media is undeniably a means for people to come together and express opinions. And the opinions expressed often evoke rage and heated discussions – particularly if you are a celebrity, influencer or a brand you can really be called out for your mistakes. Often these mistakes or missteps are related to issues of sexism, homophobia, racism, etc. – this phenomenon is called “cancel culture” and it is typical in the United States, but has also been growing in popularity in China.


The Dolce and Gabbana scandal of 2018 will never be forgotten, when public outcry poured all the way from Instagram (despite being blocked in China), to Weibo and other social media platforms in China. They shocked the world when they showed a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks, soon followed by the leaked private Instagram messages where Stefano Gabanna called Chinese racists slurs. The brand’s fiasco ended in the cancellation of a multi-million dollar show with 400 models and removal from e-commerce platforms. The designers were even detained by the Shanghainese police and later had to issue a video apology to the Chinese nation. Incredibly enough, the brand got an increase of 2512% in Weibo conversations, although sadly for the wrong reasons.


Recently Spanish brand Zara also made a blunder with the choice of a model for their lipstick campaign. The make-up ad featured a model with freckles which by Chinese beauty standards is considered to be ugly. It sparked a major social media outcry where people called it out for not complying with the Chinese beauty standards. “Our office in Spain chose the model, they might have different beauty standards… we did not photoshop the photos.” In just a few days this topic was trending on Weibo with 460 million mentions.


Another notable incident was when Leica, a German manufacturer of lenses and cameras decided to tackle one of the most controversial political topics in China;The video depicts a photojournalist snapping the famous photo “The tank man” before running away from Chinese officers, and ends with the Leica logo. The uproar was intense on social media, where one of the users posted on Leica’s official Weibo account “Get out of China, you are done”, before the topic was blocked. The company expressed their concern stating this was “not an officially sanctioned film” and that “Leica must distance itself from the content shown in the video and regrets any misunderstandings or false accusations”. Netizens showed their concern for Leica ruining their relationship with Huawei, as the brand is using its lenses on their smartphones.


Social media can be dangerous, and brands and marketers need to know how to create the “hype” moment without insulting anyone, which in today’s political climate can be difficult. A New Zealand Burger King ad might be a prime example of how not to do marketing, especially after the D&G fiasco. Their video showed people eating new Vietnamese Sweet Chili burgers with chopsticks. Burger King apology hashtag was viewed around 50 million times on Weibo. “Chopsticks are funny, right”, said one user ironically.


These brands’ mishaps makes us wonder, do brands do this intentionally for some free publicity or do they really make these cardinal mistakes? How can brands avoid negative publicity and the chance to be “cancelled” online? As mentioned in ChinaDaily “Only when we learn to tolerate each other in terms of aesthetic, will cultural confidence be owned by everyone.”



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