Leica, whose biggest growth market is China, say short film was not officially sanctioned
Western companies trying to do business in China learned long ago that they must bow, at least in part, to the political demands of an authoritarian state. So when the German camera-maker Leica released an advert featuring perhaps the greatest political taboo in contemporary Chinese history, it looked like an unusually audacious gamble.
In fact the short film referencing the Tiananmen Square crackdown appears to have been an extraordinary and potentially very expensive mistake.
China is currently Leicas biggest growth market, according to the South China Morning Post. It has a partnership with the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei supplying lenses for its high-end phones, and it recently launched the Leica Akademie for young photographers.
After the ad was met by fierce censorship and howls of outrage in China, Leica rushed to distance itself from it, claiming that despite the branding the short film was not officially sanctioned.
LeicaCamera AG must therefore distance itself from the content shown in the video and regrets any misunderstandings or false conclusions that may have been drawn, a spokesperson, Emily Anderson, told the Morning Post.
However, the ad agency that made the film, F/Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi, has a relationship with Leica dating back years and taking in several award-winning short films in a similar vein to the most recent one. One of the ads directors told the website Leica Rumours that they had been working on it for more than a year.
The five-minute film shows photographers, mostly grizzled white men, in extreme situations around the world, tracking wildlife and documenting war. The one narrative thread that runs through the vignettes of courage is the story of a photographer trying to capture the events of 4 June 1989.
The final shot shows one of the most famous images in the world reflected in his Leica lens: the tank man photo that came to define the Chinese protesters peaceful showdown with heavily armed authorities.
This film is dedicated to those who lend their eyes to make us see, reads the final message. It is not one that resonated in China. A hashtag translating as Leica insulting China surfaced on Weibo late on Thursday before it was blocked.
The film was not made for the Chinese market, but China has often been happy to harness outrage about companies or countries it believes have transgressed politically even half a world away.
Among the incidents last year, Mercedes Benz apologised for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post, and US airlines changed how they referred to self-ruled Taiwan on their websites in an attempt to avoid penalties.
Meanwhile, other western companies have found themselves under fire for doing Beijings bidding: Google is working on a censored search engine for China; Yahoo provided security forces with information they used to jail a journalist; and the boss of Volkswagen claimed he was not aware of a vast network of mass detention camps holding more than a million Muslims in western Xinjiang, where his firm has a plant.
Censorship around the events of 4 June 1989 is so strict that authorities are unlikely to have wanted readers to be directed to the video by the tide of outrage. The ruling Communist party has never declared how many people died in the crackdown, which has officially been scrubbed from all history books and is a forbidden topic online. Even oblique references to the crackdown, including sensitive word and public square, have been banned in the past.
But the Tiananmen protests are so politically explosive that even without a wave of public outrage, Leica moved fast to disown the film.
This represents Chinas growing ability to leverage its economic might to export censorship beyond its borders, said Louisa Lim, the author of The Peoples Republic of Amnesia, about the events of 1989 and their legacy. While Leica has business interests inside China and particularly with Huawei it is unlikely to want to jeopardise those, and so it is distancing itself from this ad.
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