Air China Takes Flak for In-Flight Magazine's Racist Travel Advice

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Air China is withdrawing magazines that caused an uproar with a comment about London.
Air China is withdrawing magazines that caused an uproar with a comment about London. Credit: Air China

State-owned Air China has been working hard to boost its brand image with international travelers, tapping a big WPP team to help. Meanwhile, the airline just offended a lot of people worldwide with a single sentence in its in-flight magazine.

The airline's Wings of China magazine published an article saying that "London is generally a safe place to travel, though precautions are needed when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people." CNBC producer Haze Fan had spotted the offensive "travel tip" and tweeted it; it quickly went viral.

The airline didn't respond to Ad Age's request for comment. But CNBC's Ms. Fan tweeted a copy of an airline statement saying the magazine would be withdrawn. The airline put the blame on the magazine's editorial team, ordered it to "learn its lesson" and said the article didn't represent Air China's views. She also shared the magazine's apology to the carrier and its passengers.

Air China is No. 19 on the list of the most valuable Chinese brands put together this year by Millward Brown and WPP, and it's in the midst of a big push to build its brand with international travelers.

In July, J. Walter Thompson announced that its Beijing office would lead the carrier's first global brand-building effort, working with Burson-Marsteller, Taylor Nelson Sofres and MediaCom on advertising and PR strategy in seven markets, including England and the U.S. JWT, also tapped to create brand ads for the company, described it as "an international and multidisciplinary WPP 'Air China Dream Team.'"

Air China is the second Chinese brand in a few months to take flak for a lack of sensitivity. In May, a small Chinese laundry detergent brand called Qiaobi caused an international outcry with a commercial showing a black man getting pushed into a washing machine, which transformed him into a light-skinned Chinese man. The company initially complained that "foreign media might have been too sensitive" about the ad before it finally apologized.

Sensitivities about what's racist or offensive can vary in different countries; that's something that can pose issues for brands.

A popular Asian toothpaste brand for many years bore the English name "Darkie" and used a logo inspired by a minstrel show. Colgate-Palmolive took a 50% stake in a joint-venture selling the brand, and in 1990 "Darkie" became "Darlie" and changed its logo, at Colgate-Palmolive's expense. But to this day the toothpaste's Chinese name remains "Hei Ren," or "Black Person." A note on Colgate-Palmolive's web site says research shows Chinese consumers perceive the "Hei Ren" brand as "trustworthy, international and modern."

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