Outrage is spreading in China over a video ad campaign for Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana that shows a Chinese model struggling to eat spaghetti and pizza with chopsticks.
This is hardly the first instance of brand managers thinking it’s a great idea to play with cultural stereotypes, only to be met with accusations of insensitivity or plain racism. Sometimes it’s a case of local teams not knowing what might cause offense in another country. Other times, the ad just isn’t funny – anywhere.
China’s surging economy offers the juiciest opportunities for western brands, along with big potential for marketing disasters. Mercedes apologized earlier this year after quoting the Dalai Lama -- the Tibetan spiritual leader who’s seen as a threat by Beijing -- in a China-focused Instagram post. Gap pulled a T-shirt featuring a map of China that left out territories claimed by Beijing. References to Taiwan and Tibet as nations have also tripped up apparel chain Zara, hotel operator Marriott International and Delta Air Lines Inc.
“Creating content without thinking it through and applying some rigor can be pretty dangerous,” said Johnny Hornby, CEO of advertising agency group The&Partnership, which is 49 percent-owned by WPP Plc. “For what you save on not doing these things properly, what does it cost your brand?”
D&G has said the Instagram accounts of the brand and co-owner Stefano Gabbana were both hacked and issued a statement affirming their respect for the Chinese consumers.
The history of advertising is replete with fumbles ranging from Ford Motor Co.’s Edsel to New Coke. These more recent examples show that tone-deaf ads know no borders:
Swedish apparel chain Hennes & Mauritz AB apologized and had to temporarily close some of its stores in South Africa earlier this year after protests against an online ad that showed a black child modeling a hoodie with the text “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The item appeared on the retailer’s e-commerce store and prompted a social-media outcry that caused Canadian artist The Weeknd to cancel his collaboration with the company. The incident deepened a sense of crisis at H&M, whose shares have been sliding since 2015 as sales stagnate.
A PepsiCo Inc. spot last year featuring model and TV personality Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a police officer in the middle of a street protest was slammed on social media as an exploitation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi scrapped the commercial two days later and apologized. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement. “Clearly we missed the mark.”
The U.S. drink giant messed up again last year when its U.K. potato-chip business, Walkers Crisps, shut down an online campaign that inadvertently associated its brand with images of criminals and dictators. In a promotion that encouraged people to send in selfies to win sports tickets, some instead submitted pictures of the likes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and British serial killer Harold Shipman, which Walkers automatically tweeted out alongside a pre-recorded video with Gary Lineker, a former soccer star who endorses the brand.
Dove, the soap brand owned by Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods giant Unilever, apologized last year after posting a social-media advertisement that some viewers described as racist. The ad showed a black woman removing her T-shirt to reveal a similarly clad white woman, which some viewers saw as a suggestion that being white was cleaner than being black. Dove had previously won praise for running commercials featuring ordinary-looking models of various ages, body shapes and ethnic backgrounds.
The skin-care brand, owned by Germany’s Beiersdorf AG, pulled a Facebook ad in the Middle East last year that included the text “white is purity,” across the back of a woman in a bathrobe. The spot was intended to promote the company’s invisible deodorant range but was widely shared on social media by racist groups. The company apologized, saying the ad was “misleading.”
While some bad ads are offensive, others are just plain tasteless. McDonald’s Corp. withdrew a U.K. ad last year in which a boy asks his mother what he has in common with his dead father. Not much it turns out, but both father and son shared a favorite McDonald’s sandwich -- the Filet-o-Fish.