Lancôme controversy teaches multinationals to stay away from politics

A Lancôme shop in Hong Kong Photo: Shutterstock

Luxury skincare brand Lancôme has provided a lesson for other multinationals aiming at the Chinese market that it would be wise to stay away from political sensitivities in the climate of rising tensions between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

After being threatened with a boycott by angry netizens on the Chinese microblogging website Weibo, L’Oreal, Lancôme’s parent group, cancelled the slated community concert starring Denice Ho, citing “possible safety reasons”. Ho is a Canto-pop singer well-known in the Chinese mainland for her politically divergent views with China’s central government.

Now, although mainland Internet users seem to be soothed by the French company’s quick response, there are growing protests in Hong Kong, against the so-called “kowtowing” act. L’Oreal is widely reported to be facing threats of a boycott and negative backlash from consumers in both Hong Kong and mainland China, and the market capitalization of the international cosmetics giant is reported to have gone down by 2.5 billion euros.

The Lancôme case seems to highlight a shared concern among global firms now operating in China that they are under growing pressure from vocal Chinese consumers and state media outlets to avoid a long list of political taboos in the country.

The recent Lancôme incident would remind people of American star Sharon Stone who publicly supported the Tibet independence. In 2008, luxury brand Christian Dior dropped Stone from its Chinese advertisements after the actress suggested the Wenchuan earthquake that killed at least 68,000 people was the result of “bad karma” from Beijing’s policies in Tibet.

“Any company engaged in promotional activities must consider the cultural and political sensitivities of people in the market. That is particularly true in China, which is acutely sensitive to perceived as well as actual slights to prevailing political opinions, and where both formal media and social media can quickly stir up frenzy,” Lester Ross, partner with an international law firm, told

Shaun Rein, a China market research consultant, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying that Chinese consumers and government is wielding a very long stick and will retaliate globally against brands and companies.

Zhang Yonghua, a partner of Beijing Yingke Law Firm who has rich experience in representing multinationals, doesn’t think Internet users or Chinese media would be capable of prompting boycotts unless there is a public indignation first. “There are only a few things in the country that may stir up widespread repulsion among people. Intention to divide the nation is one of them,” he told

Ho has long been known to be critical of the Chinese government, and is characterized by some media as a "Hong Kong poison" and a "Tibet poison" — a reference to Ho's praise for the Dalai Lama and support for independence (poison sounds similar to independence in both Mandarin and Cantonese).

Zhang argued that if entertainment stars get too vocal or active on political issues they would risk diverting themselves into “political celebrities” and not entertainers in a common sense. “The public is not disturbed by the fact that the singers or movie stars have political views but that they use their influence as public figures to advocate their views,” he told

The incident also highlighted the Hong Kong market’s relative insignificance to the cosmetics industry compared with that of the mainland. Ross told that the China market is and will continue to be very important for any global company, although he warned companies to consider the impact of any accommodation to the China market on their global business. “Accommodation to cultural and political sensitivities in any one market can have an adverse impact on the company’s global image or image in other markets.”

“This is not solely about me and Lancôme, nor only about Hong Kong,” Denise Ho wrote on Facebook. “This is about suppression and self-censorship that is affecting the global market and brands, and the white terror that is spreading among our societies, working to silence all.”

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