Understanding languages and other cultures builds bridges. It is the fastest way to bring the world closer together and to Truth. Through understanding, people will be able to see their similarities before differences.
- Suzy Kassem -
"The world’s worst advertising gaffe": a cross-cultural perspective on the "D&G Loves China" campaign.
In two previous articles - concerned with the topics of ethnocentrism vs cultural relativism and consumer segmentation - we’ve talked about marketing relativism to compare the outcomes of different approaches (globalized vs glocalized) to a foreign market, and about the importance of market research in cross cultural advertising: today, we are going to add to this series a post the infamous "D&G Loves China" campaign - the one defined by Bloomberg as "the world’s worst advertising gaffe" -, that we’re going to explore from a cross-cultural perspective.
The campaign, released in 2018, featured a Chinese model clumsily attempting to eat oversized Italian food with chopsticks: the ads were met with accusations of promoting negative stereotyping and racism, and the blunder had disastrous repercussions for the Italian brand.
In November 2018 The Economic Times reported that "the scandal could wipe up to 20 per cent off the Dolce&Gabbana brand’s value of USD 937 million, which already places it out of the top 50 global apparel brands", while according to Drapers the cancellation of the Shanghai show following the backlash costed D&G £22.5m. Furthermore, the CNN claimed that "pages for D&G products on shopping sites operated by Alibaba and JD.com have been taken down, and the brand’s products weren’t showing up in searches on the sites", while Bloomberg quoted a spokeperson for e-commerce site Yangmatou stating that thousands products were taken down and that "the Motherland is more important than anything else".
Finally, the model featured in the ads claimed that the campaign nearly marked the end of her career: after being targeted - together with her family and her agents - by member of the public angered at her conduct, she issued a public apology explaining that she understood it was "about representing the national image of China and Chinese culture", and that she felt "guilty and ashamed". She also vowed to "improve her behaviour" in the future. (BBC)
The campaign went so badly wrong because D&G failed to give proper consideration to their clients’ cultural background: members of a collectivist society are strongly attached to the social group they belong to, to their roots and heritage, to their national identity, and they’re ready to raise collectively to defend the values that define their community.
But let’s now take a closer look at the reasons why the ads were considered offensive and racist by D&G’s Asian audience, as explained by Chinese Youtuber Lizzie Tang in this video:
"Some people say ‘Chinese people should improve their humour. What’s so wrong about it? It’s funny’. As a Chinese person, I don’t find it funny at all .
I feel very offended when the narrative person says: ‘Now, let’s eat our great Margherita pizza with the two little stick shaped utensils’. Chopsticks. They are not "weird shaped little two sticks". They are part of Chinese culture. Actually, the earliest fork in the world was discovered in China, but then we’ve started to use chopsticks because we’ve found that chopsticks fit the Chinese diet the most, and then chopsticks became more and more popular in other Asian countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Korea… so, when you make fun of chopsticks, you are not only making fun of Chinese culture, but you’re also making fun of Asian culture. I love my chopsticks…it’s not inferior to your fork and knives .
And there’s another thing that offended me in that video: everyone knows that Chinese people like to use chopsticks to eat, but we don’t use chopsticks to eat pizza, or spaghetti. Do you use knife and fork to eat sushi? Burrito? Or tacos? You don’t! Really, it’s, like, common sense. Chinese people, and a lot of East Asian people, when we eat Western food, we eat it in the same way as you do. That video portrays Chines people like…very ignorant, have no exposure to Western societies, don’t know how to eat spaghetti, pizza…you know, like, very stupid. I feel like it’s stereotyping Chinese people, and even, like, East Asian people .
But I really think, if you’re going to do business in a country of which the culture is very different from yours, don’t you think your PR or marketing department should do a lot of research about that target group? Like…I asked my Western friends and they don’t find it very offensive, they find it a little bit dumb but funny…but by Asian standards, in our eyes, these ads are really offensive.
You know, this scandal could deliver a heavy blow to the company, as Chinese consumers account for more than one third of global spending on luxury products...so, now they’ve realized, ‘Oh my Gosh, we’re losing money’…I guess it’s yesterday they’ve just released a video saying ‘Sorry, we didn’t know about the cultural difference’ and stuff like that. I feel a little bit sad that many people don’t understand why people are offended by this.
Like, if I make fun of your fork and knife, like ‘Ugh, now, in this episode, I wanna show you how to use these weird shaped, metal utensils to eat my amazing Chinese fried rice’. How would you feel? Actually, I asked this question to my Western friends and they said ‘No, I wouldn’t get offended’…and my friends were, like, ‘Because they’re just knife and fork’ .
Ok, so, it’s different when you’re doing the same thing to Chinese people: we have a culture that has 5,000 years of history, and we have a strong cultural identity, like, we are proud of our culture, so, when you make fun of our utensils, which are part of our culture, we feel like you’re insulting our culture, you’re insulting our identity, you’re insulting the Country .
I’ve said these things in English because I want people to understand more, understand why we’re angry, like, hear the other side of the story."
To fully understand the different points Lizzie is making in her video, we must put those concepts in context:
 Communication and sense of humour.
"Humor is a universal human activity that most people experience many times over the course of a typical day and in all sorts of social contexts. At the same time, there are obviously important cultural influences on the way humor is used and the situations that are considered appropriate for laughter" (Martin and Ford)
As some of my regular readers might remember, according to the Iceberg Model of Culture, some aspects of a culture are hidden "below the water line": those include, among several other factors, values, non-verbal communication, and sense of humour.
As explained by Dr. Jessica Milner Davis in her research on "Humour and its cultural context", "Weihe Xu found an ‘inchoate ethics of mirth’ in early Chinese writings, identifying the ‘proper’ kind of humour consonant with Confucian virtue. It should be ‘never crude or rude’ (bu wei nue xi 不為虐兮).", while "[…] both traditional and modern Chinese approaches to humour clearly distinguish between approved ‘good humour’ and disapproved ‘bad humour’. In China, as elsewhere, attitudes and tastes in humour differ, depending on circumstance and personal preferences".
Furthermore, a different research on the same subject ("Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage, and Implications"), claims that "Chinese self-actualization denigrates humor while stressing restriction and seriousness", "Chinese are reluctant to admit they are humorous out of fear of jeopardizing their social status. Chinese do not think that humor is a desirable personality trait", "[…] students from India and Hong Kong, both having cultures prizing collectivism, used more affiliative and self-enhancing humor than aggressive and self-defeating humor. Similarly, Hong Kong students reported more use of aggressive and self-defeating humor and less use of affiliative and self-enhancing humor than mainland Chinese students. This could be explained by the fact that the bicultural background of Hong Kong makes Confucianism and collectivism less influential there than in mainland China."
 Ethnocentrism: "Stick shaped utensils’. Chopsticks. They are not weird shaped little two sticks. They are part of Chinese culture."
"Ethnocentrism is the technical name for this view of things in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it. Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exalts its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders. Each group thinks its own folkways the only right ones, and if it observes that other groups have other folkways, these excite its scorn." (William G. Sumner)
 Collectivism and social standing (face): "That video portrays Chines people like…very ignorant, have no exposure to Western societies, don’t know how to eat spaghetti, pizza…you know, like, very stupid. I feel like it’s stereotyping Chinese people, and even, like, East Asian people."
"Why should people in one part of the globe have developed collectivist cultures, while others went individualist? Why has East Asia provided textbook examples of collectivism? The key is how culture is shaped by the way people traditionally made a living, which in turn is shaped by ecology. And in East Asia it's all about rice. Rice, which was domesticated there roughly ten thousand years ago, requires massive amounts of communal work." (Robert M. Sapolsky)
A high level of collectivism, together with a strong sense of national pride, and a sense of humour that doesn’t seem to favour self-deprecation, might explain why - as highlighted earlier in this article -, a spokeperson for e-commerce site Yangmatou claimed that "the Motherland is more important than anything else", and why the model featured in the ads claimed to feel "guilty and ashamed" and issued a public apology for her behaviour.
This said, it must be mentioned that the controversial ads were not the only reason why D&G faced such backlash in China upon the release of their unfortunate campaign.
To read more about the story, please check the Vice article "A Full Timeline of the Crisis at Dolce & Gabbana".
On an slightly unrelated (but still culturally relevant) note, I would recommend reading the post "From Fork to Chopstick" for a brief history of eating utensils across different cultures, and the post "Hurting the Feelings of the Chinese People" for an explanation about the origin of a sentence that’s commonly used by Chinese officials "when they feel that China’s status has been undermined on the world stage, and when they feel that China—rather than imperialist countries—has been unfairly presented in a negative light".
Other posts previously shared on this blog about cultural differences between Eastern and Western societies include: