China Consumer

Not much to smile about

Fashion house’s Chinese New Year ad campaign baffles locals


Family values: the Burberry portrait causing a stir

For retailers, the Lunar New Year is a time when the culture of gift-giving reaches its peak. Most luxury brands put out products that commemorate that year’s animal in the Chinese zodiac (a pig this time around in 2019) and they launch campaigns and marketing initiatives to prompt spending.

For instance, last year Chanel hosted an event inviting consumers to try out its new Gabrielle Chanel Fragrance. Other brands like Dior, Giorgio Armani and Fendi launched their Lunar New Year collections (think red outfits and red accessories).

Burberry was the first to roll out its new advertisments ahead of this Lunar New Year (due on February 5). The campaign sees actresses Vicki Zhao and Zhou Dongyu (see WiC74) posing alongside several models – young and old – in what looks to be a multi-generational family portrait.

As you would expect they are dressed in Burberry’s signature items, including a trench coat.

However, the ‘family’ photos in the campaign are anything but conventional. Family portraits taken during the new year period tend to have a red backdrop, but Burberry opted for a more ominous grey. In fact the shot seems heavily downbeat: no one smiles and the moody young men flanking the portrait look positively hostile.

The aggressive-looking group quickly went viral online with Chiinternet users complaining that the photo was “creepy”. Some netizens compared it with posters used to promote the 2014 horror flick The House That Never Dies, while others said it reminded them of the macabre 1960s US television show The Addams Family.

“The people in the family portrait seem lost in their own sinister thoughts, as if they are scheming about something,” one opined, describing the family as looking dysfunctional.“The images are all in grey. What does that have to do with the Lunar New Year, which is such a joyous occasion?” another questioned. “I don’t think Burberry understands Chinese culture at all.”

The campaign was shot by Ethan James Green, an American photographer widely known for his gothic aesthetic.

“If the series of photos appeared in Europe and the US they wouldn’t have been a problem. In fact, even in more Westernised countries like Japan and South Korea they wouldn’t have caused such a controversy. A photographer can only follow his artistic instinct, but the brand consultant not reminding him of the cultural taboos is being negligent,” reckoned Hong Kong Economic Journal.

“For international brands like Burberry, whose understanding about Chinese custom and culture is limited, it is best to avoid shooting such a controversial promotion campaign. What it considers ‘cool’ is quite the opposite in the eyes of Chinese consumers,” added Apple Daily.

Of course, the brouhaha over the Burberry ad is in a different league to the row sparked by Dolce & Gabanna last November, when the Italian fashion giant’s online promotional video caused a firestorm (see WiC434).

That incident led to accusations of racism. D&G’s stores in China were boycotted, and online retailers and department stores dropped the company’s products.

D&G’s difficulties were possibly the definitive example of a marketing campaign backfiring in China and forced a public apology from the Milan firm’s founding duo.

The Burberry ad didn’t insult anyone or lead to allegations of racial discrimination. However, it did prompt the news portal Huxiu to claim that it once again displayed how foreign luxury brands leave too many decisions about their China marketing strategies to global head offices that fail to appreciate local nuances or conditions.

Jiemian, another news portal, cited the Chinese marketing team for another European luxury brand that had to wait almost two years to get approval from headquarters to set up an official WeChat account.

The delay resulted in a lot of missed opportunities to connect with younger consumers, it said.

WiC remains open to persuasion that the Burberry ‘family portrait’ campaign was not entirely a cultural faux pas, however. The amount of word-of-mouth publicity that it has generated on social media has been colossal. Could it have been deliberately provocative, with this in mind?


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