Lightning strikes twice: The China Syndrome

April 29th, 2019

They say that madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s often attributed to Einstein.

So what is it about chopsticks? In the past year two major worldwide brands have made chop suey of their reputations using almost identical campaigns.

First up was an advertisement from Dolce&Gabbana that featured a Chinese actress who played a rather silly girl struggling to get to grips (literally) with Italian food using chopsticks.

First she tried pizza and then spaghetti, which should not have been a problem since the Chinese probably invented noodles in the first place.

On and on it went with a condescending commentary (with subtitles in case anyone needed help) for more than two excruciating minutes.

Certainly fashion brands court controversy – remember the campaign by Benneton which was designed to shock. All of this was fuelled by alleged disparaging comments by Gabbana about Chinese people; the company claimed his account was hacked.

D&G is not afraid of controversy and it weathered the storm of dressing Melania Trump (well, she has to wear something). They responded with a T-shirt with the slogan #BoycottD&G.

But this was different and the Shanghai show was cancelled and the big names are not going to the D&G catwalks anymore. Influencers are vital in the fickle world of fashion and D&G is suffering big time, not just in  China, one the biggest markets for its products, but in the neo-liberal world we live in.

That was last November and amazingly Burger King tried the same stunt in New Zealand this month showing a couple struggling to eat its Vietnamese chilli burger using giant chopsticks.

The brought the same condemnation and accusations and the franchisee in New Zealand removed the advertisement. Burger King HQ were quick to distance themselves from the promotion. But damage was done.

There are a number of lessons from this:

1. Marketing campaigns need to be very sensitive about culture and cultural values. Humour often doesn’t travel well.
2. What happens in one small market, like New Zealand, can easily contaminate the entire brand.
3. If someone has made a mess of a campaign, it is unlikely you will do any better. so stop trying. Think of what Einstein said at the beginning.

Tom Curtin
In my years in crisis management, I am always surprised to see the same occurring gain and again.

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