Money and Marketing: Dolce & Gabbana apologizes after ad backlash in China
Thousands of Dolce & Gabbana goods have been pulled from China’s biggest shopping websites after the Italian fashion house’s marketing went off the rails in a country that’s driving the industry’s growth.
Calls for a boycott against the label gained traction after a video campaign showed a Chinese model struggling to eat spaghetti with chopsticks -- a depiction that was criticized as racist and insensitive -- and incendiary messages purportedly from co-founder Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account went viral.
It’s the latest backlash against a Western company’s marketing in China, whose consumers spent more than US$100 billion on luxury purchases last year -- almost a third of the global total -- and are no longer willing to tolerate campaigns perceived as patronizing or disrespectful. As social media gives them a megaphone, brands ranging from LVMH’s Christian Dior to Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz to apparel chain Gap Inc. have been tripped up.
Cross-border e-commerce site Yangmatou said late Wednesday night that it had taken 58,000 D&G products down, saying that “the Motherland is more important than anything else.” NetEase Inc. said all D&G items have been removed from its Kaola shopping platforms.
D&G was forced to postpone a fashion show in Shanghai on Wednesday, hours before it was due to begin, as celebrities said they would not attend. A commentary on the WeChat account of China’s People’s Daily said the government issued a cancellation notice for the event and warned: “If one is not willing to understand China, eventually it will lose the China market and the benefits arising from China’s growth.”
The country’s consumers have become increasingly quick to call out brands for marketing they see as condescending, out of touch or racist. Some felt the D&G video played on Western stereotypes of Chinese tourists carrying chopsticks with them and struggling to eat Western cuisine -- even if they can afford designer clothing.
Social media users slammed Dior this summer when it posted a video featuring a Hong Kong fashion blogger going to a store and posing with a new handbag. Elsewhere in the world, the brand has a dreamier, less literal approach to marketing. The brand has also faced criticism for adding the Chinese social media star known as Angelababy -- often referred to as a would-be Chinese Kim Kardashian -- to its roster of brand ambassadors while its lineup of Western stars includes A-list silver-screen star Jennifer Lawrence.
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. References to Taiwan and Tibet as nations in marketing or online material have also tripped up the likes of apparel chain Zara, hotel operator Marriott International and Delta Air Lines Inc. Gap pulled a T-shirt featuring a map of China that left out territories claimed by Beijing.
The latest controversy erupted on Wednesday over an ad campaign featuring clips of a Chinese model in a red, sequined D&G dress struggling to eat Italian dishes like spaghetti and cannoli pastry with a pair of chopsticks. They featured traditional Chinese music and a suggestive voiceover from a male narrator, who asks the actress trying to eat the cannoli: “Is it too big for you?”
On Internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Tmall shopping portal, a search for D&G in both English and Chinese returned no results, while a check of JD.com’s site also produced no D&G items. Alibaba and JD.com Inc. didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, while Dolce & Gabbana didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the pulled items. The closely held brand has sales of almost 1 billion euros (US$1.1 billion), according to Bloomberg data.
“Our dream was to bring to Shanghai a tribute event dedicated to China which tells our history and vision,” Gabbana and co-founder Domenico Dolce said in an emailed statement earlier. “What happened today was very unfortunate not only for us, but also for all the people who worked day and night to bring this event to life.”
D&G has been deserted by a growing list of celebrities in the fallout. Its ambassadors for the Asia Pacific region include singer Karry Wang. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Zhang Ziyi said that she would also boycott the brand.
Estelle Chen, a Chinese model who walked in this month’s Victoria’s Secret runway show, posted an Instagram message that supported the scrapping of D&G’s show. “China is rich in its values, its culture and its people and they won’t spend a penny on a brand that does not respect that,” Chen wrote.
The videos were originally posted on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service, and were deleted after a widespread uproar on social media. The clips could still be viewed on the company’s Instagram account.
The backlash intensified after screenshots of messages sent from co-founder Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account leaked on the platform, including a message exchange that said the videos were posted “by my will.” Another message complained of a “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” according to a widely shared screenshot. The brand said in social media posts that its account and that of Gabbana had been hacked.