Mercedes axes ad after Chinese backlash over model’s eyes

The German automaker is the latest major firm to feel the heat of growing consumer nationalism in China.

Mercedes-Benz removed a video advertisement from a Chinese social media website, state media said, after the clip got swept up in a charged national debate over depictions of Asian-looking features by foreign companies.

The video was posted on Mercedes-Benz’s official Weibo account on Saturday and later removed due to public backlash, the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper said.

“The makeup of the female model looked like slanted eyes and once again aroused a heated discussion from netizens with many blaming that the makeup reflects Western stereotypes about Asian people,” the paper said Tuesday.

The report included a screenshot of the video showing a woman who is apparently Chinese, though Bloomberg News hasn’t seen the full version of the ad. Emails and phone calls to Martin Sauber and Juan Zhou, the China press representatives for Daimler AG, were not returned as of Thursday morning.

The episode makes Mercedes-Benz the latest target of consumer nationalism in China that has in the past dealt a blow to Dolce & Gabbana, Hennes & Mauritz and others. Last week, Chinese social-media platforms erupted over allegations that Walmart Inc. had stopped selling items from Xinjiang at its Sam’s Club grocery stores in the Asian nation. Christian Dior SE stopped using a photo of a model in November that state media said was “smearing Asian women.”

Chinese internet users have recently been debating the way that models’ eyes are shown in advertising. The Chinese company Three Squirrels Inc. recently apologized for ads featuring model Cai Niang Niang wearing makeup that accentuated the slant of her eyes, the South China Morning Post reported.

The model hit back on the Twitter-like Weibo service, saying: “With small eyes, am I not Chinese? I totally agree with patriotism. However, creating big problems out of normal matters has become a morbid obsession.”

Communist Party censors

The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid, took aim at the Gucci fashion brand in an article late Wednesday about the appearance of a female model in an advertisement for a handbag.

“Gucci was found to feature an Asian-looking model with small eyes, ‘unconventional’ makeup, an exaggerated nose ring and a leather whip in her hand,” it said.

The article pointed out that while the model could be seen in a photo on Gucci’s official Twitter account, only her hand holding the item could be seen on the company’s Weibo. Twitter is among the foreign social media services that are blocked by the ruling Communist Party’s censors.

In 2018, Mercedes-Benz apologized for quoting the Dalai Lama on Instagram, a move that the Global Times also criticized. The automaker had attached a quote from the Tibetan spiritual leader to a post showcasing a sleek luxury model —  “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.”

Daimler said last week it would slash its stake in the Denza electric-car joint venture with China’s BYD Auto Industry Co. following years of weak sales. BYD will own 90% of the business and Daimler 10% after an equity transfer the companies plan to complete in mid-2022, the Mercedes-Benz maker said.

The joint venture was started in March 2012. Its weak profitability has been a concern at Daimler for years, even as sales for its Mercedes luxury vehicles continued to surge in China.

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