Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian luxury brand, has found itself at the centre of an angry consumer and official backlash in China, a market it considers to be crucial, following a marketing campaign that went disastrously wrong.

The company faced allegations last week that an ad it released on Weibo, designed to promote its first fashion show in Shanghai, was racist in its depiction of a young Chinese woman.

With Chinese social media ablaze with criticism, the controversy deepened after co-founder Stefano Gabbana then made allegedly racist comments on the company’s Instagram account, which it later claimed had been hacked.

As reported by Bloomberg, Dolce & Gabbana was forced to cancel its fashion show after celebrities and influencers threatened to boycott it and as the authorities made their displeasure known.

“If one is not willing to understand China, eventually it will lose the China market and the benefits arising from China’s growth,” said a government spokesperson in comments posted on the WeChat account of China’s People’s Daily.

As of the end of last week, several e-commerce companies openly said they had pulled Dolce & Gabbana products from their Chinese websites, including Yoox Net-a-Porter, Yangmatou and NetEase.

Meanwhile, the massive e-commerce sites and Alibaba’s Tmall platform returned no search results for Dolce & Gabbana, the Financial Times reported.

The row erupted at the beginning of last week, when Dolce & Gabbana released an ad depicting a Chinese model in a red D&G dress who was shown to be struggling to eat spaghetti and other Italian food with a pair of chopsticks.

The ad went out despite evidence that Chinese consumers have become increasingly vocal about marketing they regard as condescending, but this particular ad compounded the error with a suggestive voiceover from a male narrator, who asked the model: “Is it too big for you?”

Forced onto the retreat, co-founders Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana subsequently released a video on Weibo last Friday in which they apologised “to every Chinese person in the world”, Campaign Asia reported.

However, the Chinese subtitles on the video made no mention of the offensive comments attributed to Gabbana on his Instagram messages.

Ray Rudowski, a crisis manager and founder of Hong Kong-based Epic Communications, told Campaign Asia that other brands operating in China should observe the lesson that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

“This is an incredibly sensitive time in the world so it’s vital for brands to get it right before going to market with any product, service or campaign,” he said.

Sourced from Bloomberg, Financial Times, Campaign Asia; additional content by WARC staff