22 October 2016
A file pic (inset) shows Denise Ho being led away by police during the 2014 Occupy protests. The singer's political stance has earned the ire of Beijing, prompting brands such as Lancôme to rethink their association with her. Credit: CNSA, Facebook/L
A file pic (inset) shows Denise Ho being led away by police during the 2014 Occupy protests. The singer's political stance has earned the ire of Beijing, prompting brands such as Lancôme to rethink their association with her. Credit: CNSA, Facebook/L

What the Lancôme-Denise Ho controversy tells us

Lancôme’s move to cancel a Hong Kong promotional event featuring Canto-pop star Denise Ho is another example of how foreign brands cave in easily to perceived pressures from Beijing.

The French cosmetics brand announced Sunday that it has scrapped an event scheduled for June 19 due to “possible safety reasons”.

The statement gave no details, but it is not difficult to fathom the motive behind the decision — the company just doesn’t want to put its mainland China business at any risk.

As Ho is a pro-democracy sympathizer and had in 2014 voiced support for the Occupy movement, there had been calls in the mainland for a boycott of brands that she was associated with.  

Over the weekend, China’s Global Times lashed out at Lancôme, saying that it was patronizing an artist who was known for pro-Hong Kong and Tibetan independence leanings.

The company is using the money it earns from mainland consumers to give a platform to someone who acts against the interests of China, the newspaper suggested in a Weibo post.

Following the criticism and several adverse comments in mainland online forums, Lancôme stressed on its Facebook page Sunday that Ho is not its spokesperson.

The remarks and the event cancellation make it clear that the French brand and its parent firm — L’Oréal — are trying to distance themselves from Ho as they doesn’t want to antagonize mainland consumers.

Also, that will help it stay on the right side of Beijing, something that is crucial if the group wants to grow its business in China.  

Ho is among a handful of Hong Kong celebrities who have openly supported the city’s democracy movement. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the pop star courted arrest for a while.

In Global Times’ Weibo post Saturday, Ho was described as “poison of Hong Kong”.

The post drew thousands of likes from mainland netizens and triggered fresh calls for boycott of the brands the “unpatriotic artist” was promoting.

This obviously rattled Lancôme, prompting it to issue a statement quickly.

On Monday, Ho called on the French firm to provide a clear explanation on the reason for the event cancellation.

“This is not only about me. This is about those who believe in freedom, justice and equality. This is about those precious universal values that every individual yearns for,” she said in a statement.

“This is about what kind of a world we want to live in. It is unjust when people have to be punished for speaking out, standing up and seeking for these rights we consider to be basic human rights.”

Accusing the French firm of “kneeling down in the face of a bullying hegemony”, Ho urged the group to “come clean” on its decision and to clear her name.

From an outsider’s perspective, the latest incident is further proof of China’s growing intolerance against creative artists who stand up against Beijing on issues such as democracy and human rights.

Ho is the latest in a long line of overseas celebrities who have faced bullying from the Communist regime across the border due to political reasons.

Some artists have been informally blacklisted by Beijing, while some have seen their concerts in the mainland drastically limited — often after complaints by Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong.

If you want to make money in China, refrain from speaking about sensitive political issues — this is the message going out to performing artists like singers and actors.

Commercial entities or brands that associate themselves with problematic artists will also face the heat, as Lancôme has discovered. 

In the end, it is up to individual firms to decide how to respond to any threats and intimidation from China.

Are you willing to stand up for what you believe is right, or would you let commercial considerations override everything else? This is the choice facing overseas brands.

It is worth noting that while Lancôme has backtracked on its association with Ho, another foreign brand with which the artist is associated — Listerine — has shown spine despite also facing boycott calls in China.  

The mouthwash product launched its latest “Bring out the bold” global branding campaign in late May, with Ho as its spokesperson.

Despite being called out by Global Times, Listerine is continuing its promotional campaigns featuring Ho.

The courage shown by the Johnson & Johnson brand has been applauded by many netizens, going by the comments in online forums.

Ho is, in fact, a good ambassador for the “Bring out the bold” campaign, given the singer’s track record of courage which saw her “come out” and declare her homosexuality in the past, as well as stand up and be counted among the pro-democracy sympathizers in Hong Kong.

Amid the controversy surrounding Lancôme, the artist has raised some important issues for brands operating in the Greater China market.  

“If we stop self-censoring out of fear and start respecting ourselves and others based on good honest work, we could all be freer,” Ho said.

“It is about freedom and justice. Because the reality is that if we opt to stay mute and do nothing, the freedoms would all be stripped away from us before we notice.”

It is a message that most Hong Kong people would agree with.

Lancôme rapped for canceling event starring pro-democracy singer (June 6, 2016)

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EJ Insight writer

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