Daily Insights

China’s Cancel Culture

By: Liz Flora | Apr 01, 2019

You’ve likely heard of “cancel culture” in the United States, where celebrities and brands have been getting called out on social media and boycotted for a wide range of issues, often those related to sexism, racism, homophobia, or abuse. This phenomenon isn’t just a US thing–it’s also a growing force in China, where it is taking on distinctly local characteristics.

The most prominent example of the power of China’s cancel culture within the past year was the boycott of Dolce & Gabbana following the brand’s infamous China meltdown. Like recent global racism scandals faced by luxury brands including Gucci and Prada, Dolce & Gabbana received online backlash after being called out by fashion industry Instagram watchdog account Diet Prada. The massive social media uproar in China generated a 2512% increase in Weibo conversations about the brand, and resulted in tangible, disastrous consequences: the cancellation of a multi-million dollar China fashion show, removal from e-commerce platforms, and the loss of all of its Chinese brand ambassadors.

Social media-led boycotts in China often include instances where foreign brands are called on to conform with ideas the CCP deems politically correct. The most recent brand to experience this was MAC Cosmetics, which went into damage control mode three weeks ago over Chinese social media backlash to a US marketing email that omitted Taiwan from a map of China. With the hashtag #MAC ad’s China map omits Taiwan# receiving over 6.8 million views on Weibo, the brand’s China office issued an apology on its Weibo account, while MAC also emailed out an English-language apology. MAC’s Chinese brand ambassador, pop star Zhang Yixing, also issued a statement on Weibo and changed his profile photo from his handsome face to a Party-approved map of China. Fashion retailer Gap faced a similar issue in May 2018 over a map of China on a t-shirt sold in Canada.

Making China’s cancel culture even more complicated for brands is the fact that China’s web users don’t always agree on what’s controversial. Fast-fashion retailer Zara and Vogue magazine were both recently criticized online for featuring Chinese models whose looks did not conform to mainstream Chinese beauty standards, sparking an outcry that their “ugliness” was insulting to China. The model used in Zara’s beauty campaign was criticized for having freckles, while users thought the model in Vogue looked too “weird.” But some web users spoke out against the criticism of the models, calling for less narrow-minded beauty standards in the country.

Online disapproval of celebrities’ behavior can also impact the brands they promote in China. NARS, for example, issued a public apology in July 2018 for working with a celebrity who had been detained for marijuana use four years earlier after the controversy became a trending topic on Weibo.

Consumer rights are also a big issue with China’s netizens in relation to foreign brands. La Mer, for example, was sued in October by a prominent Chinese blogger for claiming on its Chinese site that its cream had “cured” burns, while its English site said it could “soothe” them. The Weibo hashtag #La Mer cheats Chinese consumers# received over 92.3 million views and 118,000 comments. The most recent brand at the center of a consumer rights issue is Maybelline, after Chinese media reported on March 18 that Tmall and JD.com users had complained that the brand had not given out free items as promised and did not state that a flash sale had ended.

How “cancelled” a brand eventually becomes in China relates to the severity of the controversy. Balenciaga, which faced online furor in April last year after users complained of mistreatment of a Chinese national on line to buy its Triple S sneakers in Paris, went dark on Weibo for four months after issuing an apology. Dolce & Gabbana, meanwhile, waited a little over three months to post again after its apology video. The lack of posts and celebrity endorsements meant that in the month after the incident, conversations about the brand on Weibo went down 97% from the average of the four previous months before it happened.

With awareness of their global purchasing power, Chinese consumers are likely to continue to become increasingly assertive online when they’re dissatisfied with global brands. Globally contentious topics will likely pose major challenges to brands–for example, apologies related to controversial geopolitical conflicts could favor China while alienating customers in other markets. Backlash is also often not just toward brands’ content in the China market, but also on US platforms like Instagram, despite being blocked in China. For example, Mercedes-Benz apologized last year for an Instagram post featuring the Dalai Lama, a public figure who is the subject of vastly different public opinions inside and outside of mainland China.

Enacting policies to steer clear of politically sensitive topics is likely a policy that most brands are adopting, but is much easier said than done in China–a map graphic, for example, wouldn’t generally be considered a political risk. But when it comes to the Chinese market, brands are increasingly bracing to expect the unexpected.