By The Nation
The importance of private firms maintaining rigorous cultural sensitivity was underlined this week when Italian clothing brand Dolce & Gabbana triggered an uproar in China that forced the postponement of a highly anticipated catwalk show in Shanghai.
D&G has attempted to blame much of the public outcry on hackers, but its reputation has taken a severe blow nevertheless.
The controversy began when the company posted a video on the social-media site Weibo in which a woman struggles to eat pizza and pasta using chopsticks. Viewers complained that it “trivialised” both women and Chinese culture, and suddenly the hashtag “#boycottDolce” was everywhere.
The video was deleted within 24 hours, but that didn’t end the company’s troubles.
Next, a conversation ostensibly between founder-designer Stefano Gabbana and a fashion writer was made public online, in which Gabbana seems to make a string of derogatory remarks about China and complain about having to delete the video. This was when the excuse about hacked social-media accounts arose, the company insisting it had only great respect for China and its people.
Private firms routinely proffer “respect”. Too seldom do they extend wholehearted apologies when they’re expected. The cancellation of the fashion show appeared to confirm that D&G was in retreat and fighting a rearguard battle. It should have realised the depiction in the video might offend Chinese and shelved it, but, having pitched it to the world and earned scorn, it should have immediately apologised.
Even if hackers did in fact target D&G, the intrusion doesn’t absolve it from responsibility for the original blunder. Directing its umbrage at hackers did nothing to answer the indignation shared by countless viewers of the video.
Foreigners do not have to know another country’s culture backwards and forwards to be able to avoid disrespecting it. They should have the common sense to realise that what one society regards as trivial might be of the utmost importance to another.
Cultural insensitivity has time and again proved costly in global politics as well as commerce, but the lesson apparently has to be learned again with every new generation.
The lesson is that cultures vary from region to region and that it is well within every society’s rights to defend its cultural distinctions. Another lesson for D&G is that it cannot belittle the insult felt by the Chinese people. Disrespect, whether real or perceived, is the root cause of serious global problems, with some nations and societies believing they are superior to others. The resentment that results can and does fester into aggression.
In business, cultural insensitivity can be costly. D&G will pay the price if it continues to characterise the Chinese gaffe a small matter that can be resolved through public relations. The controversy has already had a knock-on effect – people in all Asian countries use chopsticks, after all – and many Thais are saying online that they’ll support the boycott.
If some viewers argue that the video was harmless, they too are disregarding the fact that many others found it hurtful. If an action evokes anger, that anger must be assuaged. If foreigners don’t understand what the big deal is, they should at least appreciate that other people consider it a big deal.