Many brands are inclined to use Chinese elements in their China-targeted advertisements in order to attract local consumers, which is logical enough. Unfortunately, the brands often do so without fully considering the cultural implications of those elements, as we discussed in our previous article, please see: http://blog.galalaw.com/post/102frcj/marketing-in-china-culture-issues. Recently, these cultural missteps have often involved images of Chinese women, and surprisingly, it is not only foreign brands whose ads spark such controversies.
At the end of 2021, Chinese netizens spelled affront at a 2019 ad from Three Squirrels, a famous Chinese snacks retailer. The advertisement featured a female model with very thin, slanted eyes. The ad, posted on the company’s official social media account, was considered by many to be culturally insulting and reinforcing of Western stereotypical images of Chinese faces. In reply, Three Squirrels published official apologies and removed those ads.
This is not the only controversy over the portrayal of Chinese women in advertisements. Before the Three Squirrels issue arose, in November 2021, a Chinese photographer named Chen Man took a series of photos showing a model with single eyelids and dark skin dressed in traditional Chinese garb and holding a Dior bag for the fashion brand’s exhibition. The photos were slammed by netizens as uglifying Chinese women. In response, Dior published an official explanation that such exhibition is not an advertisement and also removed such photos.
In this same vein, Mercedes-Benz released a video advertisement on its official Weibo account in December 2021, in which the company used male and female models to promote new products. However, the makeup of the female model reminded some of slanted eyes and Western stereotypes. Mercedes-Benz did not respond but removed the controversial ad from its official Weibo account.
There were no public reports of these ads incurring official punishments, but such unsuccessful marketing activities negatively impacted the image of brands.
The thinking behind such controversies is clear: the brands believe that their depiction of Chinese women is appealing to their audience, but some consumers in fact are insulted. Thus, it is advisable that brands need to be fully considered their majority consumers’ attitude towards beauty, instead of only considering from the brands themselves. Especially, the brands shall considered people bored in 90s and 00s, as they are major user of internet and have their own attitude towards beauty, which are diversity and refuse to be judged as a single image.
As the culture issues-concept of beauty is evolving, women with small and narrow eyes is an accurate portrayal of a certain kind of Asian woman, but it no more cater the Chinese people. It is advisable for brands to consult with local expertise in this area to make sure unnecessary controversies.
More generally, the opinions of Chinese netizens on social media play an increasingly important role for brands when advertising its products, and could influence consumer choices. Therefore, even though some cultural issue do not violate any laws or rules, if the products are boycotted by netizens, that marketing campaign is likely to fail and the brand itself may face collateral damage. In such context, obtaining advice from local counsel from both legal and commercial perspectives before commencing with promotional events or publishing advertisements is highly recommended.