Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Citroën "insults the whole Chinese nation"

A scowling Mao has caused consternation in China

When Citroën published a newspaper advertisement in Spain this week they may have thought that they were only targeting a Spanish audience. But in the age of the internet and global media, news can spread beyond cultural and political borders very fast indeed. But why would they be concerned? Surely a wider audience would increase the strength of their brand. Unfortunately for Citroën this would turn out to be a public relations disaster. So what is it that has caused so much consternation and who did Citroën offend?

China’s internet forums were buzzing after the full page advertisement hit Spanish newsstands. Many were outraged and offended that the car company should use a beloved icon of Communist China in an advertisement. Chairman Mao is still an important part of many people’s history in China and so for Citroën to use him in an attempt to sell cars was insulting to many.

The full-page advert featured the famous image of Mao Zedong that adorns Tiananmen Square. But it had been altered – his face was scrunched up in a half-baffled, half-quizzical look. Below was the caption: “At Citroën, the revolution never stops.” Given how often the image of Mao has been manipulated by Chinese artists, the marketing people obviously thought it was permissible to poke a little fun. But the Chinese people have not seen the funny side. The Global Times, a paper from the People’s Daily stable that likes to stoke nationalist sentiment, said that the advert “wantonly distorted” the image of Mao []. And no sooner than it had highlighted the issue than a firestorm of internet angst from Chinese netizens ensued [].

The carmaker, which has invested heavily in China, was attempting to promote the idea that its ‘revolution’ to innovate and develop technology would continue; whilst Mao Zedong’s revolution had stopped. Under the Biblical quotation "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," the text talked up Citroën 's position as a car sales leader in a bombastic tone. "It's true, we are leaders, but at Citroën the revolution never stops … We are once more going to put in motion all the machinery of our technological ability, in order to repeat in 2008 the successes obtained in previous years" the advertisement read.

The Global Times described the manipulated image of Mao had been “wantonly distorted” and sparked many comments from readers. "As a Chinese, I felt greatly insulted when seeing this ad," a posting on web portal Tianya said. "It is not only insulting Chairman Mao, but the whole Chinese nation." Another comment said, "Chairman Mao is the symbol of China, and what Citroën did lacks basic respect to China".

Citroën pulled the advert and sent a letter of apology to the Global Times. “Citroën highly respects China’s representative figures and symbols,” the company said in a statement. " Citroën expresses regret for any displeasure caused by the advertisement and apologizes to all who have been hurt by it”. But for many Chinese people the apology fell on deaf ears. Another forum drew criticism of Citroën and called for a boycott of the company’s products. Spain was also singled out by some readers who had thought the country had been behind the advertisement. The fallout from this may not be as far reaching as causing a drop in sales of Citroën, but the issue does serve to highlight sensitivities between different cultures and how careful one needs to be in order not to offend [Financial Times / Reuters / BBC].

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