International Journal of Business and Social Science

ISSN 2219-1933 (Print), 2219-6021 (Online) DOI: 10.30845/ijbss

“GAP CHINA18” T-Shirt Controversy “Unintentional Blunder” or “Deliberate Act”? Interpretations from a Cultural Key Symbols’ Perspective
Fengru Li, PhD

This explorative case study addresses consequences of MNCs’ controversial branding practices across national and cultural boundaries. Bi-lingual reviews of over fifty news reports in both English and Chinese, interpretations of over 1,000 microblog messages divulge the divisive issue whether the controversy of the Gap’s China 2018 t-shirt be an MNC’s “unintentional blunder,” or a “deliberate act” of unprovoked insult to indigenous consumers. Explanatory insights are gained with Sheehan’s framework of “Controversial Advertising” and Ortner’s concept of “Cultural Key Symbols.” Findings include: indigenous netizens with the onset of technological advances inhabit the new landscape of defying Gap’s social insult within 24 hours which led to Beijing’s unusual involvement; the Gap practice is deemed controversial for its misuse or creative use of the cultural key symbol as logo; and perceived insincere apology permeates distrust. In controversial branding practices, any distortional use of key cultural symbols, be it a deliberate or unintentional act, would have the power to empower, reinforce, or aggravate a collective ethnic identity. This Gap controversy has epitomized such aggravated cultural identity.

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