What can we learn from D&G’s lesson in China?
In the past weeks, what is the most discussed brand on Chinese social media? The answer is D&G. Unfortunately; this is by no means good news for the Italian brand – the company has been heavily criticised for posting videos deemed as offensive to Chinese people on its Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Weibo (Chinese Twitter) profiles. Amid the brand’s inefficient PR crisis, the criticisms have quickly gone viral on Chinese social media, leading to the cancellation of an important fashion event organised by the brand in Shanghai.
The story started in November 2018, when D&G released a series of promotional videos on its social media profiles in both the West and China. The videos promote an idea of “the East meets the West” by showing models with East Asian faces attempting to use chopsticks (symbolic of Chinese/East Asian culture) to eat Italian cuisine (such as pizza) in a very clumsy way.
While this was apparently supposed to demonstrate the brand’s multiculturalism, the message was received by China and East Asian audiences as an invocation of the hierarchy in which the West is the modern, progressive culture and the East is seen as “uncivilised” or even “barbarous”. This provoked a flood of criticisms by Chinese users on popular social media platforms, and a number of high-profile Chinese celebrities boycotted the brand’s fashion show.
Stereotypes rarely help
The D&G incident is thought-provoking. It helps us to reconsider how to develop an effective strategy to address the Chinese market.
First and foremost, businesses should always be cautious of using stereotypes. Cultural and national stereotypes have been used in advertising to create punchlines for decades – centuries, even – but their history means they’re now more likely to be associated with racist attitudes in contemporary society. In D&G’s case, the misuse of stereotypes has clashed with the rise of nationalism in contemporary Chinese society, in which people often strongly identify themselves with their country and their traditional culture.
This provides Western businesses with an example, showing that misuse of the stereotypes of Chinese people and culture in social media content could lead to serious consequences in contemporary Chinese society in which nationalism is on the rise.
Crisis comms failure
But it wasn’t just the advertising itself that was problematic – D&G’s crisis PR strategy has been… inefficient at best. After noting Chinese audiences’ criticisms, D&G removed the controversial promotional content on Chinese social media. However, they did not do the same on Western social media such as Instagram – which was soon discovered by Chinese users. This made their apology appear insincere in the eye of Chinese users.
It is undeniable that China is notorious for its Internet censorship, which blocks access to popular Western social media from the Chinese territories. However, we have to remember note that VPN is also popularly used by educated Chinese users, who not only have access to Western platforms but also have the language and media literacy to understand the content circulated on these platforms. This is not to mention that there are hundreds of thousands of overseas Chinese students studying in the West and using Western social media on a daily basis. Failing to consider the influences of these young, educated Chinese users is another major omission in D&G’s crisis response.
After Brexit, China may well become one of the most important trading partners of the UK. Given the unique history and culture of China and the Chinese social media ecology, it’s exceptionally important to factor in potential pitfalls such as D&G encountered. We can’t promise to predict everything, but if you’d like to know more about the Chinese social media landscape and how you could fit into it, please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.