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What CEOs can learn from Dolce & Gabbana’s ‘racist’ ad controversy

Cultural misappropriation, the multiplier effect of social media, and the quickest way to spark a mass brand boycott.

Italian luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) has found itself mired in an international public relations disaster after the debut of their latest Chinese ad campaign, which drew sharp criticism for its racist overtones. The backlash escalated after designer and co-founder Stefano Gabbana allegedly made offensive comments about Chinese culture while defending the campaign in a serious of private Instagram messages. Drama ensued, with many calling for a boycott of the brand.

It’s not the first time D&G found itself in the middle of controversy. In 2016, it described a new pair of gladiator sandals as “slave sandals”. In April 2017, it published a campaign on Weibo depicting Beijing as an underdeveloped city, which was deleted after complaints. Gabbana also outraged music fans when he called singer Selena Gomez “ugly” in an Instagram comment, while the other half of D&G, Domenico Dolce, once called children born through IVF “synthetic”.

 

Creative ‘freedom’ – a double-edged sword?

Photo: Twitter/Dolce & Gabbana 

Dolce & Gabbana sparked outcry after a campaign aimed at the Chinese audience backfired in a monumental way. The videos, which were published on Chinese social media site Weibo on Monday (Nov 19), showed a Chinese model struggling to use chopsticks to eat giant-sized portions of a pizza, a cannoli and spaghetti, while flanked by Chinese lanterns and couplets. The videos were meant to promote their show in Shanghai on Nov 21, and hashtags   and  were used, but that didn’t stop detractors from decrying that the videos were racist, stereotypical and outdated, with many Chinese people feeling that Dolce & Gabbana was making a mockery of their culture.

(Related: In memoriam: 11 quotes from Lee Kuan Yew, for business leaders)

 

The fallacy of private social media accounts and importance of self-censorship

After the controversy over the ad erupted, a series of screenshots from a conversation purportedly between co-founder Stefano Gabbana and fashion writer Michaela Phuong Thanh Tranova was released by fashion social media watchdog Diet Prada, with the designer appearing to criticise China with derogatory comments in an attempt to defend the “Eating with Chopsticks” ad. He also lamented the fact that the videos had been deleted.

(Related: Bosses and CEOs, your social media accounts are not personal)

 

Throwing down an appropriate get-out-of-jail-free card

The brand subsequently came out with statements saying that its social media account, as well as Stefano Gabbana’s, was “hacked”. “Our legal office is urgently investigating,” it said, and apologised for “any distress caused by these unauthorized posts, comments and direct messages”. It added: “We have nothing but respect for China and the people of China.” Gabbana also posted a statement denying that the statements came from him, saying: “My Instagram account has been hacked. My legal office is working on this. I love China and the Chinese Culture. I’m so sorry for what happened.”

Street style icon and fashion influencer Susie Lau (@susiebubble) is skeptical however, denouncing Gabbana’s latest remarks as part of a “botched up bad PR cover-up” in an Instagram post. Lamenting on the state of the fashion industry, she pointed out that many brands use the concept of inclusiveness as a form of marketing strategy, instead of truly being cultural sensitive and aware. “Question is when will the industry truly grow up and be AWAKE, instead of simply putting on a front of marketing-obtained wokeness,” she added.

 

Brand boycotts and the multiplier effect of social media 

(Second photo shows quotes from Vogue China and Zhang Ziyi)

Some of China’s biggest celebrities in the fashion and entertainment industry were supposed to attend the catwalk show, but the saga led to many announcing their withdrawal. According to media reports, actress Zhang Ziyi was the one of the first few stars to pull out. Her management also said in an announcement that neither she nor anyone on her team would ever again buy or use any of the company’s products. Other stars include singer Wang Junkai, actress Li Bingbing, actor Chen Kun, and girl band Rocket Girls 101. “Our mother country is more important than anything, we appreciate the vigour and beauty of our cultural heritage,” said the management of Wang as they announced his withdrawal. “I love my mother country,” actress Li Bingbing told her fans on Weibo, while fellow actor Talu Wang posted: “Respect is more important than anything.”

 

The curtain falls

In the wake of a social media firestorm, it’s not surprising that D&G fashion show that sparked the series of ads in the first place got scrapped. The multi-million dollar show (reportedly costing 200 million yuan) was supposed to involve 500 looks and last for an hour, but was abruptly called off on the day itself. According to Diet Prada, Shanghai government officials cancelled the event just hours before it was to take place. In its latest statement where it described the show as “a tribute event dedicated to China”, the luxury brand said the show was something they created “with love and passion for China”. It added: “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.”

Cover image: Instagram/@diet_prada