The story of Fiat apologizing to China for its Richard Gere and Tibet themed ad for a new car was first reported on June 20. At that time, I quickly dismissed it as nothing but another blunder by the marketing department of a global company that should have known better. The ad itself wasn’t problematic per se. But it was clearly created with Richard Gere’s Tibet oriented activism in mind. Somebody should have foreseen that it would be perceived as provocative by some (or a lot) people.
So my first impression was quite similar to how Stan Abrams reacted in his China Hearsay blog.
Someone should get fired for this, and not because of the political overtones themselves. No, someone should be fired for incompetence. Through the whole vetting process for this ad, no one thought this was a bad idea? Really?
But interestingly, the story didn’t just die. I keep seeing reports of this matter in the English based media, perhaps because Fiat was also rather loudly insisting that the commercial would continue to air. “That’s odd,” I thought, “What’s the point for Fiat to apologize in the first place?”
Tim Johnson, in his China Rises blog, offerred an explanation.
Maybe it is a new corporate strategy. Mount an ad campaign. Anger Chinese. Capture lots of newspaper headlines. Issue an apology. Keep the ad campaign running anyway.
… So what does this show? Tibet sells in Europe. No matter how much Chinese officials claim that the Dalai Lama and Tibetan activists are part of a criminal clique, that image doesn’t ring true with European consumers. It’s a powerful image.
… I suspect that Tibet is a fairly “Teflon” issue for Richard Gere in the Western world. I doubt it hurts his image. It is a net positive, casting him out of the mold of a typical self-absorbed actor.
… Apparently it is the carmakers who are the shrewdest of all.
Wow, if this was truly Fiat’s plan and if it could have pulled it off masterfully, I would have to agree that the management at Fiat is among the shrewdest of all. But did everything go according to the play? I put Johnson’s description into a step by step plan below and examined the events accordingly. (The number 2 step is my insertion, which creates a plausible deniability and I believe is of vital importance to the success of this strategy. )
- Mount an ad campaign
- Play innocent
- Anger the Chinese
- Capture lots of newspaper headlines
- Issue an apology
- Keep the ad campaign running anyway
Immediately, I see two problems.
First, Fiat did not play innocent, at all. I mean, it couldn’t possibly be helpful to leak the plan to Reuters way ahead the airing of the ad, on June 4, could it? (The selection of the June 4 date to premier the ad, if intentional, was a brilliant subtle move though, as it surely would have made the government of China unhappy.)
As it has done with other models, Lancia will use a celebrity to promote it: Richard Gere. And the television spot in which the U.S. actor appears will likely further raise the brand’s profile, given the sensitive issue it addresses.
Second, where was the “anger the Chinese” part? Why didn’t Fiat wait for some heated indignation and boycott Fiat slogans to show up in Chinese Internet chat rooms and streets first? The first and only news report of that ad in China, before Fiat issued the apology, was from 和讯汽车, the automotive channel of a Chinese financial news network. The original article can be found here and was decidedly short on anger. Its title was “Tibet independence advocate Richard Gere in Fiat commercial with Tibet scenes”. And its strongest pronouncement on the ad was:
While there isn’t much special meaning to the commercial itself, the very presence of Richard Gere invokes some particular perceptions in the European viewers.
And the article even prominently included two press photos of the car. (You remember it is about a car, right?) Yet the Fiat PR department rushed into releasing the apology the next day. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo.
So what’s your take? Is it a case of shrewd planning marred by flawed execution, or merely a matter of incompetence?