By Giovanna Puppin.

A ‘magic’ connection

On the morning of 18 November 2018, as soon as I woke up, I received a WeChat message from one of my former students on the MA in Media and Advertising, a Chinese girl who now lives and works in Shanghai. She informed me that a new advertising campaign by the fashion house Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) was enraging Chinese netizens and fuelling a heated online debate. The main reason why she contacted me, I thought, was that she remembered one of my lectures on offensive advertising from when she was a student here in the UK. She then sent me the link to the videos, and added: ‘I think there is a magic connection between you and the D&G ad incident’. After I watched the adverts, I understood that the ‘magic connection’ between D&G’s latest campaign and myself was… a pair of chopsticks.

Possibly not by coincidence, the day before I received an author copy of the newly published book Chinese Discourses on Happiness, edited by Gerda Wielander and Derek Hird, for which I had written a chapter on the public service announcement (PSA) Chopsticks (Kuaizi pian 筷子篇), which was broadcast by China Central Television (CCTV) during the 2014 Spring Festival Gala. In my analysis, I explained how this PSA used chopsticks as a party-state sanctioned metaphor that united all families across China, promised happiness and reinforced national identity. Precisely because of its strong emotional appeal and cultural associations, this PSA moved to tears all the Chinese students sitting in the classroom every time I screened it. My former student surely remembered it, and therefore drew the connection.

In contrast, the (in)famous D&G advertising campaign Eating with Chopsticks (Qikuai chifan 起筷吃饭), which is the focus of this post, used this cultural symbol in a completely different way, with the result that it was accused of being offensive, using stereotypes and could even be described as being sexist and racist.

Interestingly, on 21 November – right in the middle of the D&G storm – CCTV News’ Weibo account and CCTV English’s YouTube channel recirculated the 2014 PSA Chopsticks, asking the rhetorical question: ‘Do you really understand Chinese chopsticks?’ (Ni zhen de dong Zhongguo de kuaizi ma? 你真的懂中国的筷子吗?). This was a ‘veiled’ message implying that, in the light of what had happened, D&G clearly does not.

D&G’s love for China

The Italian luxury fashion brand D&G opened its first flagship store in China in April 2005, and chose Hangzhou – a second-tier city – as its entry point to this new market. As the number of wealthy Chinese and their luxury spending grew, so too grew the brand’s interest in China. As a result, D&G today has 58 boutiques around the country.

Back in the early 2000s, the company’s founders – Sicilian-born Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana – must have foreseen the Chinese market’s huge potential, which has been recently confirmed by the promising forecasts by McKinsey: by 2025, Chinese consumers will account for 44 per cent of the total global luxury goods market. This will translate into sales equivalent to the size in 2016 of the US, UK, French, Italian and Japanese markets combined. The Chinese luxury consumers hold brand pre-eminence (that is, being a globally well-known brand) as the top buying factor, but this is not necessarily essential to winning their hearts and minds. Furthermore, D&G should have learnt from its past mistakes.

In January 2012, for example, the brand upset thousands of Hong Kongers, who then gathered and demonstrated their rage against an alleged ban on them taking pictures of D&G’s new shop in Tsim Sha Tsui, while tourists from mainland China were permitted to do so. It had to make a public apology.

Then, in April 2017, D&G launched on social media a brand-new DG Loves China (DG ai Zhongguo DG爱中国) campaign to promote its first fashion show in Beijing. The campaign, directed by the Morelli Brothers, portrayed beautiful models in colourful D&G attire posing with ordinary humble Beijingers – passers-by, taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers – in some of the capital’s most famous locations, such as the Great Wall, Tian’anmen Square and Nanluoguxiang.

The campaign was soon criticised by Chinese netizens for portraying a stereotyped, backward China, especially when compared with the previous D&G campaigns that were launched in Hong Kong and Japan, which featured modern urban backgrounds. Due to the intense public backlash, the brand quickly removed the images and video, without giving any explanation or apology.

However, D&G’s hottest scandal (at least so far), erupted just a few days before The Great Show, which was supposed to be held at the Shanghai World Expo Centre on 21 November 2018, and was intended to feature 40 celebrities and 360 models, as well as to host 1,500 guests. The Great Show positioned itself as one of most spectacular shows in fashion history, and surely the biggest one organised by a foreign fashion house in China. Unfortunately, these were not the reasons that made The Great Show unforgettable – it was actually cancelled at the last minute.

D&G’s (not so) universal language of love

On 17 November 2018, D&G uploaded its new Eating with Chopsticks (Qikuai chifan  起筷吃饭) campaign on its official social media sites (Sina Weibo, Instagram and Facebook), with the hashtags #DGLovesChina and #DGTheGreatShow. (To date, no information on the production agency for this campaign has been released.)

The campaign was composed of three videos (entirely in Mandarin Chinese), which are constructed as episodes. Each of them opens on a still frame with the Chinese characters for: pizza Margherita (Episode 1); Sicilian cannolo (Episode 2); and pasta with tomato sauce (Episode 3). A male voice-over welcomes the viewers and introduces each episode as if he were the host of a TV show. Each video closes on a frame with the four-day countdown to The Great Show.

The main protagonist is a beautiful Chinese model wearing a D&G red sequin dress and gaudy jewellery, who is sitting at a dining table in front of the aforementioned Italian dishes. The male voice-over, in a quite condescending tone, invites her to join the challenge – eating Italian food with chopsticks – and tells her how to use and not to use the chopsticks. The model looks surprised and perplexed at having to face such a crazy task: she constantly giggles in an embarrassed way and, as she does so, she covers her teeth, appearing quite silly and coquettish. She is also portrayed as clumsy, as if she doesn’t have a clue how to accomplish this mission (possibly also because the Italian dishes are unreasonably big). Thanks to the guidance and instructions, as well as silly remarks and jokes, of the male voice-over, she finally succeeds in eating all the Italian dishes with chopsticks. The final victory of each episode is emphasised with the male voice-over exclaiming ‘Bravissimo!’, and the model enthusiastically clapping to herself. The music and background setting are constructed to appear ‘traditionally Chinese’.

Episode 1: Pizza Margherita

Welcome to Episode 1 of Dolce & Gabbana’s ‘Eating with Chopsticks’. Today, we would like to start by showing everybody how to use this small stick-shaped cutlery to eat the great traditional Italian pizza Margherita. Would you hold one chopstick in one hand, as if it were a knife, and cut a slice of pizza? No, no, no, not like that! Mmm, right, like that is correct! So, as if they were a pair of tongs, clamp a slice of pizza and then insert it in your mouth. Oh, don’t let the cheese drip! Bravissimo! (English translation by the author).

Episode 2: Sicilian cannolo

Welcome to Episode 2 of Dolce & Gabbana’s ‘Eating with Chopsticks’. Today, what we are going to eat is a traditional Sicilian cannolo. At last we have a dish whose size won’t make people feel awkward… or is that too exaggerated? Let’s grasp the chopsticks and arrange them as a pair of tongs, then clamp a cannolo. Do you think it’s still too big? You can also insert one chopstick in the cannolo and eat it like this! This will make you feel like you are in Italy, but you are actually in China! Bravissimo! (English translation by the author).

Episode 3: Pasta with tomato sauce

Welcome to Episode 3 of Dolce & Gabbana’s ‘Eating with Chopsticks’. In our final episode, the challenge is traditional pasta with tomato sauce! You might think that it’s roughly the same as eating Chinese noodles, but the way to eat it is actually very different. It’s not that easy. Let’s try and insert the chopsticks in the pasta and hold it. Yes, hold it… and then twirl it. Those who manage to eat it will score high points! Bravissimo! Ah, your bracelet is really beautiful! (English translation by the author).

As the videos appeared on Weibo, they immediately drew the attention of Chinese netizens, who started by defining the ads as ‘crazy’ (feng 疯), ‘sick’ (e xin 恶心), and ‘in poor taste’ (tuwei 土味). One netizen explained that the campaign was both racist (as it deliberately chose a model with small eyes, which is a stereotyped beauty standard for East Asian women to Americans and Europeans) and sexist (as the male voice-over’s comment on the Sicilian cannolo ‘Do you think it’s still too big?’ had a clear sexual overtone).

The messages below are taken from the screenshots uploaded by a Weibo user, who managed to collect the Chinese netizens’ comments in the first couple of days after the launch of the campaign.

One Weibo user thought the campaign was the result of D&G’s inaccurate market research in China. In Shanghai, where the brand was planning its fashion show, people had actually already experienced all of the dishes. The choice of using chopsticks here didn’t translate into a blending of Eastern and Western elements, but rather turned out to be a mess.

A more vehement netizen disapproved of the image of China depicted in the campaign: traditional elements like lanterns, dragon dance, lions and the Confucius statue don’t portray Shanghai as a modern city (whilst THE modern city is always New York).

Another Weibo user requested an official apology, since the videos portrayed a stereotyped ancient China and implied the inferiority of Chinese food, as the voice-over emphasised the great difference between Italian pasta and Lanzhou pulled noodles (even though they are both everyday food). Moreover, the generally arrogant and prescriptive tone hints that Chinese people are ignorant and are being talked down to as if they were children (this with specific reference to Episode 3: ‘Those who manage to eat it, will score high points!’).

A rather diplomatic netizen was of the opinion that, despite the fact that people understandably felt uncomfortable, D&G didn’t actually plan to be racist. The campaign was aligned with the camp style of the brand and its products, and therefore the overall exaggerated and odd effect was created on purpose.

Another Weibo user explained that Italian pasta was actually introduced into Italy by Marco Polo as an imitation of Chinese noodles, meaning that without China there wouldn’t be any Italian pasta. How could D&G be so naïve as to think that the Chinese cannot use chopsticks to eat their own food when it returns to its home country?

As a result of the above (and many other) negative comments, which seemed to agree in labelling the campaign as ‘offensive towards China’ (辱华), the three videos were quickly removed from D&G’s social media channels (first from Weibo, then from Instagram), without any explanation.

From tribute to offence

But the real scandal had yet to start. On 21 November 2018, soon after the ads were pulled, the Instagram user michaelatranova (Michaela Phuong Thanh Tranova, a Vietnamese model) sent a direct message (DM) to Stefano Gabbana, in which she criticised the campaign as racist, and provocatively asked him for an explanation. In his DM, the Italian designer replied saying that the ads were not racist, and that they were actually a tribute to China, so if the Chinese felt offended it was because they feel inferior. He specified that withdrawing the campaign was not his choice. Possibly to make her upset, he then threatened to say that China is ‘a country of [five poo emojis]’ in all his future international interviews. The situation escalated when the Instagram account Diet Prada – which claims to expose design rip-offs but has been accused of deliberately creating conflict (including with Stefano Gabbana) – published the screenshots of the DMs and made them public. The backlash from Chinese netizens intensified beyond control when the screenshots reached Weibo.

In a first attempt to contain the backlash, D&G posted a statement on its social media sites saying that both the Dolce&Gabbana and the Stefano Gabbana Instagram accounts had been hacked, as follows:

‘Our Instagram account has been hacked. So has the account of Stefano Gabbana. Our legal office is urgently investigating. We are very sorry for any distress caused by these unauthorized posts. We have nothing but respect for China and the people of China. DOLCE & GABBANA’

Attached, there was also a screenshot of Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram DMs, covered with the words ‘NOT ME’.

But Chinese netizens were not entirely convinced by this explanation, especially because Stefano Gabbana is notorious for being quite verbal and provocative in his social media activity.

On the very same day on which The Great Show was to take place (21 November 2018), all the Chinese celebrities who had been invited (Zhang Ziyi, Li Bingbing, Chen Kun, Huang Xiaoming, TFBoys, Rocket Girls 101, Huo Siyan and Jin Dachuan – to name just a few), posted statements on their Weibo accounts saying that they wouldn’t attend the event. D&G brand ambassadors for the Asia Pacific region – Karry Wang, the leader of the boy group TFBoys, and Dilraba Dilmurat, the Xinjiang-born actress (also known as Dilraba) – not only cancelled their attendance but even ended their contracts with the Italian fashion house. In their Weibo accounts, they also posted rather nationalistic messages, such as ‘Wu yong zhi yi, ni shi zuihao de 毋庸置疑,你是最好的’ (Without a doubt, you are the best) and ‘Ai ni, women zui hao de zuguo 爱你,我们最好的祖国’ (Love you, our motherland is the best) followed by the emoji for the Chinese flag.

The most heated reaction on Weibo, though, came from Zhang Ziyi: going beyond her promise to boycott D&G products, the actress posted the Chinese expression zi qu qi ru 自取其辱 (literally: ‘to disgrace oneself’), followed by ‘D [poo emoji] G’. This was accompanied by a meme – or better, a biaoqing bao 表情包­ – with a speech bubble that, translated into English, sounds like: ‘You dropped your shit, I am returning it to you’.

Interestingly, the expression zi qu qi ru 自取其辱 was used also by the official Weibo account of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China, which uploaded a Chinese-language post directed at D&G, saying: ‘We welcome foreign companies to invest and set up businesses in China, but at the same time they have to respect China and respect Chinese people. This is the basic principle all companies should follow when they invest, set up businesses, and start collaborations with another country’ (English translation by the author).

In the meantime, D&G products were removed from China’s biggest shopping websites, including Yangmatou, NetEase Inc.’s Koala.com, Alibaba’s Tmall, and JD.com.

Later in the day, in a triumphant Instagram post, Diet Prada announced that The Great Show had been cancelled by the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Shanghai. D&G’s official Weibo account simply informed netizens that the show was postponed, and expressed an apology for the inconvenience caused.

After the cancellation of The Great Show, D&G released another statement in English, saying:

‘Our dream was to bring to Shanghai a tribute event dedicated to China which tells our history and vision. It was not simply a fashion show, but something that we created especially with love and passion for China and all the people around the world who loves [sic!] Dolce & Gabbana. 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. From the bottom of our hearts, we would like to express our gratitude to our friends and guests. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana.’

Nonetheless, Chinese netizens still felt that D&G owed them an apology. This finally came on Friday, 23 November 2018: in an official video, in Italian and subtitled in English and Chinese, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana acknowledged their mistakes, asked for forgiveness, and promised to work hard to understand and respect Chinese culture better. They then ended their message by saying sorry in Chinese: dui bu qi 对不起.

D&G’s controversy didn’t end with this video. On the contrary, the debate is still fermenting on Chinese social media, and seems likely to continue for some time.

The ‘fun’ of using chopsticks

Much more remains to be said with an in-depth examination of the socio-cultural significance of D&G’s ‘chopsticks incident’ (kuaizi shijian 筷子事件) in China.

Leaving aside the chopsticks (for a moment), it is worth highlighting that D&G’s Eating with Chopsticks was not a typical commercial advertising campaign trying to sell a product or service: it was a brand advertising campaign created to promote an upcoming fashion show. It didn’t appear in a vacuum; it was part of a bigger interactive campaign launched on D&G’s official Weibo account on 14 November 2018, which revolved around a ‘style challenge’ (xingge tiaozhan 型格挑战): ‘Are you #DGEnough#?’. Weibo users, by clicking on a link, could take part in the challenge by uploading their ‘Am I #DGEnough#’ pictures and get the chance to attend The Great Show and even go backstage.

The Eating with Chopsticks videos were aligned with the style of the official teasers portraying Karry Wang and Dilraba; and there are traditional elements of both Italian and Chinese culture, which are equally stereotyped. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: advertising is the communication form that, par excellence, relies on stereotypes and, in this specific case, it was playing with them intentionally and teasingly, in line with the unconventional and contrasting features of the brand. Eating Italian food with chopsticks, therefore, was selected as a funny cross-cultural challenge to convey the eccentric and provocative message ‘Are you #DGEnough#?’, rather than as a deliberate insult to Chinese culture and the Chinese.

Now, coming to the chopsticks. One of the most important rules in cross-cultural advertising is that the campaign has to resonate well with the target market and local consumers, who have a different cultural and linguistic background and might interpret messages and meanings in a different way.

In this sense, the choice of chopsticks was very unfortunate, as they are a crucial symbol of Chinese national-cultural identity. In particular, the binary opposition between ‘this small stick-shaped cutlery’ and ‘the great traditional Italian pizza Margherita’, and the ridiculous oversizing of Italian dishes might have conveyed the wrong message of presumed cultural superiority – which I doubt was undertaken on purpose. Saying that the chopsticks should be held like ‘a pair of tongs’ was, again, not a clever strategy, as it would imply using this cutlery tool in an inappropriate way. In the light of this, the creative team behind Eating with Chopsticks ended up showing a lack of cultural sensitivity or, changing perspective, choosing an advertising concept that was far too daring. This is because it would require the flexibility of opening up a very well-established and rich cultural symbol – like chopsticks – and allowing it to be (mis)used in a different, unconventional, possibly even irreverent way by advertising. The fact that the brand was foreign didn’t help, and actually made things worse.

Perhaps (un)surprisingly, the unfortunate ‘chopsticks incident’ became very fortunate for the Chinese party-state, as it was used instrumentally to resuscitate the old 2014 PSA Chopsticks and, once again, re-establish the state-sanctioned, correct use of chopsticks.

Ultimately, a new lesson – one that D&G as well as other foreign brands will long remember – was taught: playing with chopsticks in China is not funny.

Giovanna Puppin is a Lecturer and Programme Director of the MA in Media and Advertising, School of Media, Communication, and Sociology, University of Leicester. Her main research interest lies in Chinese advertising (commercial and public service) and, more generally, Chinese media and promotional culture, with a focus on issues of representation, identity and power. Her most recent publications include the book chapter ‘Happiness “with a Chinese Taste”: an Interpretive Analysis of CCTV’s 2014 Spring Festival Gala’s Public Service Announcement (PSA) “Chopsticks” (Kuaizi pian)’ for Chinese Discourses on Happiness, edited by Gerda Wielander and Derek Hird (Hong Kong University Press, 2018) and the journal article ‘Making Space for Emotions: Exploring China-Africa “Mediated Relationships” through CCTV-9’s African Chronicles (Feizhou jishi 非洲纪事)’ for a special issue on China-Africa interactions of the Journal of African Cultural Studies (2017 – Volume 29, Issue 1). Image Credit: CC by stratman² (2 many pix!)/Flickr.

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