Sexist, discriminatory, and dishonest brands that met the wrath of Chinese consumers this year
Another year, another glut of apologies from brands and companies accused of misleading Chinese customers. If you’ve so much as glanced at social media in 2021, you will have likely seen “翻车 (fānchē, car overturned)” all over Weibo. The term literally refers to a traffic accident, but has recently been appropriated by netizens to describe celebrities and brands who mess up and ruin their own reputations through controversy and scandal.
From a depressingly high number of examples of sexist advertising to misleading sales promotions, brands have found all manner of ways to wreck themselves this year. Here are the top six occasions on which brands met Chinese netizens’ wrath this year.
PurCotton’s victim-blaming ad
The first on a long list of companies that irked consumers with sexist marketing toward women, PurCotton, a maternity and baby products brand, was criticized for objectifying women and joking about women’s safety in a controversial commercial. The January advert, meant to promote its makeup removal wipes, featured a young woman being stalked by a threatening man in a narrow alley at night. As the man gets close, seemingly about to attack the woman, she takes out a PurCotton wipe and removes her makeup, turning into an ugly man in the process and scaring away her would-be attacker.
Many outraged netizens pointed out that the commercial associated women’s safety with their appearance, and accused PurCotton of victim-blaming.
The company quickly published a public apology, saying it had removed the commercial. Yet PurCotton managed to enrage critics further when it posted another more detailed version of the apology two days later which included two paragraphs saying “sorry,” and eight paragraphs of corporate spiel boasting about the company’s history, vision, products, and achievements.
“If we didn’t read the first paragraphs, we would regard it as an annual report at the year-end conference,” one Weibo user commented.
Ubra objectifies women in the workplace
In February, lingerie brand Ubra invited a number of stand-up comedians to publish creative videos on Weibo for a marketing campaign. The result was perhaps predictably distasteful. After Li Dan, one of China’s best-known male stand-up comedians, published a post describing Ubra’s bra as “a tool for women to win without lifting a finger in the workplace (一个让女性轻松躺赢职场的装备 yí gè ràng nǚxìng qīngsōng tǎngyíng zhíchǎng de zhuāngbèi),” criticism rained down on both Li and the company on social media.
The phrase “躺赢 (win while lying down)” means “win effortlessly” online, but when it was used in the context of promoting a bra, it seemed to indicate that women can achieve success at work through their appearance and sexuality.
Feminists pointed out how disrespectful toward women the post was, and soon many netizens announced they would boycott Ubra’s products.
Ubra apologized for the inappropriate content through its Weibo account, while Li did the same a day later, saying he hadn’t meant to cause offense and would be more careful with his words in future.
Car manufacturer finds crass way to advertise acceleration
Number three on this list is yet another example of sexist marketing, this time from car manufacturer Chang’an Ford, a joint venture between China’s state-owned Chang’an Automobile and US carmaker Ford.
In May, the company released a commercial which aimed to show off its newest car model’s acceleration. The chosen method: driving so fast that the wind from the vehicle lifted up a skirt. In a Weibo post featuring the commercial, Chang’an Ford wrote: “In Japanese manga, when a boy runs fast past a girl, the girl’s skirt would fly up. Is that possible? Let’s reproduce the scene with the help of a little sister in a white dress.” It even added the tags “fun experiment” and “a feast for eyes” to the post.
Predictably, scores of outraged viewers criticized the commercial for objectifying women and being vulgar. The company apologized and removed the video and the post, but not before the car-maker’s reputation had been “turned over.”
Double scandal for water company
In June, drinks brand Nongfu Spring got into an utter tangle as it first appeared to use ingredients from irradiated sources, then was accused of false advertising. First, a netizen found that Nongfu Spring used the words “Dawn White Peach from Fukushima Prefecture, Japan” in marketing for its peach flavored soda. Because of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011 and continued reports of radiation in the vicinity of the nuclear plant there, netizens began to worry whether the advertised peaches might be contaminated.
Nongfu Spring responded that they merely created the product with a similar flavor to the advertised peach, and they imported no ingredients from Fukushima. While this alleviated some worries around food safety, the focus quickly shifted to the company’s misleading marketing, leading to questions over what other advertised ingredients weren’t actually in the drinks.
“Using ingredients from Fukushima or engaging in false advertising: They have to choose the lesser of two evils,” one Weibo user concluded.
L’Oreal gets in a tangle over Singles Day discounts
Questionable discount practices by French cosmetics company L’Oreal around the “Singles Day” shopping festival on November 11 didn’t just enrage netizens, but also the company’s own celebrity collaborators: China’s top two livestreaming sales stars Li Jiaqi and Viya.
L’Oreal announced a promotion that consumers who bought one of the company’s facial masks via Li’s or Viya’s live streaming sessions during the Singles Day pre-sale period would be entitled to the “biggest discount of the year.” Later, however, consumers found that they could buy the same product for nearly half the price during the company’s own livestreaming sessions.
Angry consumers rushed to Weibo to complain, with the incident quickly becoming a trending topic on the platform. Li and Viya both distanced themselves from the controversy by announcing they would stop cooperating with the brand until the issue was settled, and they would provide compensation to buyers if the brand failed to announce a solution within 24 hours.
L’Oreal issued a statement to apologize, claiming the mistake occurred because of complex discounting strategies around Double 11, and said it would offer coupons worth up to 200 RMB for customers who bought the facial masks during pre-sales.
But many netizens were not satisfied with the solution, with one commenting: “With such false promotions, you expect me to buy your products again?”
More shine comes off golden Canada Goose
Canada Goose is no stranger to controversy in China—its stores were briefly boycotted during China-Canada political tensions—and this year was no exception. This time, the company’s strict returns policy came under fire.
In October, a customer surnamed Jia in Shanghai purchased a goose down jacket worth over 10,000 RMB at a Canada Goose retail store, only to find its embroidered logo was defective, and the jacket had a strange odor. But when Jia tried to return the damaged jacket, she was refused because she had signed an exchange policy when she bought the jacket which stated “unless otherwise provided for by applicable laws, all products sold at Canada Goose’s retail stores on the Chinese mainland are strictly non-refundable.”
Jia complained about the discriminatory returns policy to local media, and the story blew up on social media in late November. Jia told news website China Economic Network that she was asked to sign the refund agreement after she had paid for the product, while the company’s website stated that items bought within 30 days could be returned if they met return conditions, which include being unwashed, unworn, and with tags still attached.
The government-affiliated China Consumers Association then waded into the debate, describing the company as “arrogant and superior.”
On December 1, Canada Goose issued a response, clarifying that there was no non-refundable policy in China. The company told Reuters that, based on Chinese law, customers could get a refund for their purchases within 14 days if there were issues with the brand’s craftsmanship. A day later, Jia finally managed to return her jacket.