It seems like it shouldn’t be a hard lesson for companies to learn: Don’t be racist, whether in international advertising campaigns or in personal communications. And yet the fashion house Dolce & Gabbana finds itself facing an international crisis, because of its apparent inability to follow that rule in either channel.
A recent advertising campaign, which was pulled quickly, promoted an upcoming Dolce & Gabbana fashion show in China (which also was cancelled ultimately). In it, an Asian model wearing one of the designer’s gowns unsuccessfully attempts to eat conventionally Italian foods, like pizza and cannoli, using chopsticks. And if this stereotypical and biased imagery were not offensive enough, the narrator of the voiceover running in the background mispronounces the company’s name, using an exaggerated Chinese accent, and makes salacious comments about the model herself.
As noted, the ad was pulled quickly, but the damage had been done. The founders of the company issued a public apology, in a video posted to the social media site Weibo, in which they regretted the incident and promised it would never happen again. But around the same time, an Instagram chat by Stefano Gabbana, half of the founding team, went public. In the published comments, he disparaged China as a nation and also referred to Chinese people in offensive terms. Although the company alleged that his account had been hacked, consumers were widely skeptical of this claim—especially when they noted that the company previously had aired a troublesome advertisement that suggested China was populated mainly by provincial, uneducated, and poor residents, without acknowledging its diversity.
The failure of the apology accordingly led the company to cancel the planned fashion show, but even that drastic step seems to have been insufficient to appease angry consumers. Chinese social media users promoted boycotts of the brand, and Xinhua News Agency, which is the nation’s official news source, issued a formal request that international brands display greater respect for China. Perhaps even more worrisome for the brand, both Alibaba and JD.com—China’s two largest e-commerce sites—removed all Dolce & Gabbana products from their online stores.
The problem is not something that Dolce & Gabbana can ignore if it hopes to remain in business. Chinese consumers account for approximately one-third of the global luxury fashion market, and Dolce & Gabbana hosts nearly 60 stores throughout China. These stores are currently the sites of widespread protests, as consumers seek to express their outrage directly to company representatives. In addition, analysts predict that the fashion house could suffer an approximate loss of half a billion dollars in revenue as a result of the incidents.
So some key questions linger. First, how hard is it to just not be racist? Second, why would any company make fun of the consumers it is attempting to target with its products? And third, what should Dolce & Gabbana do next?
1. What should Dolce & Gabbana do next to address the problem?
2. What can the company do to ensure that such an incident does not happen again?
Source: Yuhan Xu, “Dolce & Gabbana Ad (With Chopsticks) Provokes Public Outrage in China,” NPR, December 1, 2018; Adam Jourdan, “Dolce & Gabbana Founders Seek ‘Forgiveness’ in China with Video Apology,” Reuters, November 23, 2018; Elizabeth Segran, “Why Does Luxury Fashion Hate Chinese Consumers?” Fast Company, December 3, 2018