The mainland Chinese are annoyed; they are complaining that the new Burberry Chinese New Year ads are mirthless and rather ominous. They obviously have not seen the British brand’s creepy Christmas campaign
Why so glum? Even 小燕子 (xiao yanzi, little swallow) Vicky Zhao (right) can’t lift the Burberry CNY 2019 ads from gloominess. Photo: Burberry/Weibo
Burberry ended last year with a weird ad; they started this year with another just as weird. Or, eerie, as some Netizens felt.
In China, Burberry’s yet-to-be-fully-launched Chinese New Year campaign is eliciting remarkable dismay and disapproval. The advertising stills that were first posted in Weibo last Thursday surprised many when it was revealed by Burberry to be for CNY. As fashion ads go, they’re frankly unremarkable, but as those targeted at a very specific occasion, one considered to be the most important on the lunar calendar, they stood out for their stupendous gloominess.
The Burberry ads suggest a family coming together for a portrait, or possibly some wefies. They appear to be unwilling participants, photographed against their better judgment, surrounded by people they are unhappy to be near: a tableau of the inauspicious. Two Chinese stars are enlisted to give the pictures the glamour factor that luxury brands typically require of their visual presentations, but even Vicky Zhao (赵微) and Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) are not able to bring a mood of 喜气洋洋 (xi qi yang yang or full of joy) to the set with a backdrop that, for most Chinese families, should have been tossed out with the spring cleaning.
Unhappy family? Or is this how CNY has become these days? Photo: Burberry/WeiboThe same ad, as seen suspended from the ceiling and perpendicular to the Burberry store at ION Orchard. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
Or, is Burberry smarter than what they have led us to believe? Could this be Burberry saying something about how the young luxury consumers of today are reacting to Chinese New Year? Are we looking at a typical of Chinese family celebrating CNY now?
In the close-crop photo of Vicky Zhao and Chou Dongyu, the women look like distant cousins confronting other relatives that have come with danger (or dagger?!) rather than good tidings (aka ang pows), with the older holding the hands of the younger protectively before they run for the safety of the panic room (aka the toilet). Ms Chou wears an expression that, when brought to any CNY visit, would be considered ku (苦 or bitter)—best left at the door.
Yet, increasingly, this is what many families, especially the older folks, see during Chinese New Year, when they open their front door. So unhappy and unwilling are the young to go CNY visiting these days that many of these reluctant folks have opted to go abroad during this season, a trend that encourages those who are staying put to not answer knocks on the door or the ringing of the phone so as to pretend they are away.
Evil intent? The creepy photo that prompted one Weibo user to suggest that there was a plot here to kill the grandmother for her riches! Photo: Burberry/Weibo
Could this then be Burberry reflecting the sign of the times (that’s why the ad campaign is named “摩登新禧” or Modern New Year)? Or the other sign—that western luxury brands will continue to market to Asia with little or no understanding of the market?
We resist comparing this to the Dolce and Gabbana fiasco of two months ago. To be fair, both incidences are very different, but 新浪财经 (Sina Finanical News) may be on to something when they headlined this poser: “Dolce & Gabbana 之后 Burberry 或也将‘败’在广告”. Or, “after Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry may be defeated by advertising”. It sounds like the Chinese media (and Sina isn’t alone) is saying that Chinese consumers, perhaps more than their Western counterparts, pay attention to adverts, and that brands should be mindful of what they communicate to the Chinese.
Or, have the mainland Chinese for too long projected themselves to be a rather uncultured lot when overseas that there are brands who think that, back in the motherland, culture is inconsequential to the world’s most populous nation? Or have the Chinese become, as some say, unduly sensitive when they themselves have been culturally unaware when on foreign soil? Insensitivity begets insensitivity?
Something’s going on? The evil and the snubbed! Photos: Burberry/Weibo
It is rather puzzling that following the Dolce & Gabbana uproar, brands are still not taking into consideration the textual and visual implications of the messages they deliver in markets not their own. We wonder if it can be narrowed to one thing: an Italian failing. Like Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci is Italian, so is the company’s CEO Marco Gobetti. To be sure, we are not playing the nationality card here, but it did have us wondering if this is a possibility: that there is scant understanding of China and much of Asia among present-day Italians.
This is glaringly ironic considering that compatriot Marco Polo, the 13th century merchant, is known to be a serious Sinophile and had written much about zhongguo. But he isn’t the only one who held the Chinese in high regard. Later, in the 18th century, the Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione served as court painter to three, not one (!), Qing emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. In fact, Italy’s bilateral relations is believed to date back to the times of ancient Rome.
For some, to make sense of all this, we have to take into consideration that we live in a confused—and confusing—world. These are times when we can do and say anything we want just as we can wear whatever we desire, even if it’s an affront to the decency or culture of the person in front of us. Fashion has become less about design than the need for the wearer to be intrusively, even inappropriately, expressive. Blare without care.
Burberry’s earlier gloom. A dining hall and Kirsten Scott Thomas divorced from joy in Burberry’s Christmas 2018 video commercial. Photos: Burberry/Weibo
Since Riccardo Tisci’s appointment at Burberry, there is a certain gloom when it comes to the brand’s big, holiday advertising. Just last month, their Christmas ad, specifically the “fashion film” format, showed stars of the movie, music, and modelling worlds in their Burberry festive finery. But no one seemed happy, not even the dog under the table, on which a most un-festive meal was laid, in a hall with as much Yuletide cheer as a funeral parlour.
Even with big names, such as actors Kirsten Scott Thomas (looking spectacularly despondent) and Matt Smith (looking disconcertingly evil), and hip-hop artiste MIA (looking positively bored), the advert has such a lack of merriment that this could easily be a trailer for some slasher-in-a-sanctuary movie. Or, has Westerners’ attitude towards Christmas turned to the unrecognisable just as Chinese people now look at Chinese New Year so rather differently?
None of the cast members of the Burberry Christmas ad looked more sinister than Naomi Campbell, who sat on the ground like a broken doll, with her head on her mother Valerie Morris-Campbell’s lap, both looking blankly at a TV screen in front on them, in a chillingly blank room. With an eldritch half-smile on both faces, the Campbells appear no different from the Hewitts—Leatherface’s crazy family in 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That, we think, is pretty creepy.