Chinese actor and heartthrob Liu Haoran made a name for himself in 2014’s Beijing Love Story. In his most recent campaign for fragrance company Jo Malone, he appears on a white horse, prompting fans to liken him to a fairytale prince. But the advert didn’t have a ‘happy ever after’: Jo Malone spiked the campaign after it sparked controversy with the perfumer’s erstwhile global ambassador, Star Wars actor John Boyega, who had directed and featured in the original version.
Both of the aftershave campaigns showed the respective actors riding horses, surrounded by friends and family. The action is very similar, although the multi-cultural cast in the Boyega original is replaced by an all-Chinese one for the Liu version.
In a tweet on September 15, Boyega wrote: “I have decided to step down as Jo Malone’s global ambassador… Their decision to replace my campaign in China by using my concepts and substituting a local brand ambassador for me, without either my consent or prior notice, was wrong. The film celebrated my personal story – showcasing my hometown, including my friends and featuring my family.”
Boyega added that while he accepted that many brands “understandably use a variety of global and local ambassadors, dismissively trading out one’s culture this way is not something [he] can condone”.
It is not the first time that the British-Nigerian has bristled at his treatment in China or that he has implied racist motives.
In the 2015 Star Wars, he decried the Chinese version of the movie poster for shrinking his image and removing photos of other non-white actors.
Some netizens in China supported Boyega’s stance. “I can understand his point: as this advertisement’s content is based on his personal life and using the concept without his consent, it must be upsetting. If this advertisement was just the marketing company’s design and didn’t relate to Boyega, he wouldn’t have had to condemn it,” commented one.
That said, many others did not see the problem in using Liu as the brand’s ambassador for the Chinese market. “The issue here is how different regions choose brand ambassadors… It doesn’t matter if the ambassador is black, white or red, if people don’t know the ambassadors, what kind of promotion can they provide?” argued another netizen. “This issue is not one of race.”
Others put most of the blame on Jo Malone’s marketing team. “Jo Malone should pay John Boyega a copyright fee and then pay Liu Haoran for the damage to his reputation,” a devotee of the Chinese star proposed. “Furthermore, Jo Malone shouldn’t simply remove the advertisement, instead the company should use its brains and shoot a better Chinese commercial. If we’re talking about racism, I’ll say the British brand doesn’t respect Chinese consumers” (a common complaint about international brands in China, some of whom have been forced to apologise for misconceived marketing campaigns: see WiC434 and WiC507).
Jo Malone was also forced to apologise to Liu, making clear that he was not involved in the “concepting” of the campaign. Yet before it was withdrawn, many fans of Liu seemed to have been impressed by it. On weibo, screenshots of the ad drew rave reviews from his fanbase, circulating on social networks with comments like “White shirt, riding a white horse, I don’t know which directorial genius thought of this idea, too good”. The comments were accompanied by #LiuHaoranJoMaloneChinaFirstFragranceAmbassador, a hashtag that has now been reposted more than 38,500 times.
Now that the campaign has been pulled, Jo Malone risks alienating Liu’s army of female fans.
Meanwhile the woman who founded the brand (selling it to Estee Lauder in 1999) has given her own view on the debacle, telling Britain’s ITV that she was “horrified and disgusted about what has been done to John”.
Malone hasn’t been involved with the brand since 2006 but complained that the fracas had hurt her on social media too. “This has gone global and my name has been associated. It’s been done in my name but also people think it’s me.”
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