What the D&G incident means for ‘brand Italy’
I watched — as we all did — the latest, infamous Dolce & Gabbana China ad. And I cringed. Not just because of how offensive it was, but because of what it said of “brand Italy” right now.
You know the videos: a stereotyped Chinese girl is shown having troubles eating Italian dishes with chopsticks. In one of the ads she is struggling with an oversized cannolo and a voice asks her with a certain innuendo: “Is it too big for you?”. The ads outraged the Chinese people, who started a huge boycott campaign which some say might cost Dolce & Gabbana up to 38 million dollars.
The real problem with the D&G ad
So what happened here? To me the ad was not really unusual for Dolce & Gabbana — actually I would say it was pure Dolce & Gabbana — neither fashion as a whole is new to outrageous ads. Rather, the ad was a clash between the Italian attitude and the critical ability of the new, global and connected audience.
Dolce & Gabbana has always been — for good or bad — one of the most typically Italian brands around, leveraging the national traits as a marketing gimmick. This ad highlights two of these traits.
The first is the sense of cultural superiority. This is very common among Italians, sometimes subconsciously. The Americans? Goofy. The French? They don’t even have bidets (and they stole the Gioconda). The Chinese? Heck, they eat DOGS! I’m not denying that Italy has a strong cultural heritage — nor are other countries — but in the long run this made us blind to the contribution and value of other cultures (especially lately). So this is how we marketed ourselves for a long time, as the one and only reference for food, style, and creativity in general. It worked, but couldn’t work forever. Especially for Chinese people, who might have a thing or two to say about culture.
The second one is machism. Dolce & Gabbana always enjoyed playing with images of Sicily in the Fifties: strong, dark men and provocative but submissive women. While this is at best picturesque, it is just an exaggeration of a real and very present problem with Italian culture. The relationship between sexes is still backward in our country, and the gap with other countries widens year after year. This is also how we marketed Italy for a long time: we are passionate, we are (the men) seductors, this is the place for your once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Well, this is starting to sound awkward, too. Especially when the subject of our heavy humor is a foreigner.
What Italy can learn from this incident
In their naïveté, Dolce & Gabbana sacrificed themselves for all of Italy: they tested how Italian attitude, expressed in its purest form, performs in the connected age. Results are in: not very well.
I think Italian brands should learn from this: we were used for so long to be “the world most loved” that we have felt untouchable. Free to be reckless, snob machos.
Now things are changing: the global world should teach us a bit of humility and openness. We have a lot of qualities, and so do the others. Mixing ourselves, listening and exchanging views is the only way through.