Guest post by Courtney Gordner
Earlier this year, General Motors was forced to apologize and pull an ad that referred to China as “The Land of Fu Manchu.” If you’re unaware, Fu Manchu is a fictional character depicted as a criminal mastermind in a 1932 film who convinces other Asian men to kill off white men and take their women. It was such an insult to the representation of Asians worldwide that the Chinese embassy in Washington issued a formal complaint. Over eight decades later, it would seem that old habits die hard.
In addition to moral objections, why is it that despite supposedly “knowing better,” some companies believe it is a good idea to engage in stereotyping and racism to sell products? Why risk alienating a market as huge as China to harken back to the days of racial exclusivity and discrimination?
Consequences of Offending China Are Far-Reaching
Pretend that you are tasked with coming up with an ad and you want “Commercial Loans” to be the major takeaway. I’m sure that you could think of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of scenarios. If you want this ad to be specific to the Chinese market, perhaps you can include Chinese actors and aspects of the local or national culture that could be appreciated. Perhaps you can use these factors to demonstrate your awareness of and respect for your market. The act of researching the Chinese market for ways to launch your message in the best way is an ideal, fruitful use of time.
Now pretend that instead of China, you are advertising to another market, perhaps the American market or even another country that has a particular history of Chinese stereotyping. If you are in a market where racial stereotyping is common as a means of selling products, you may be tempted to participate in this behavior to some degree. Taking this kind of risk is both reprehensible and short-sighted.
China as a social and business model is a strong proponent of “saving face”. What this means is that behaviors or words that are interpreted as intending embarrassment, shame or public humiliation are treated with the utmost seriousness. Such acts are frequently deemed unforgivable. In a business sense, this behavior can mean that you will never have your products promoted in China and may be forced out of the country altogether by a watchful Chinese government. This may not be a death sentence to all businesses today, but as markets continually integrate and shrink, it could be that at some point the survival of your company depends on your ability to expand abroad. Why risk a slammed door in the face of your brand when you could simply avoid stereotypes and bigotry all together?
Even If Your Business Never Goes To China, It Still Matters
With the changing pace of global communication and the availability of information, it’s harder than ever for us to pretend that there’s no way that ugly stereotypes and racism in advertising will stay in the minds and hearts of the local audience. But all it takes is one ad posted to Tumblr or shared on Youtube and before you know it, you’ve gone viral for all the wrong reasons.
Don’t be deceived into thinking it’s perfectly safe to engage in behaviors that speak to the hate and ignorance in your consumer base. Even if no one in China ever buys what you’re selling, you will likely find yourself on the wrong side of public perception. A backward company peddling hateful ideas about certain ethnic groups? No sensible consumer wants to be associated with you. And when people don’t want to risk associating with you, it matters what you do domestically just as much as it does globally. Stick to treating consumers, all consumers, with respect and dignity.