It’s not very easy for people in China to criticize their government, but their restraint does not apply to private companies, as BMW found out the hard way at this week’s Auto Shanghai show. Specifically, the Bavarian automaker learned this lesson via an incident involving ice cream (of all things) — one that has sparked a big backlash on social media.
First, some backstory. In case you’re just joining us, Auto Shanghai was a very, very big deal in 2023. It was the first major Chinese auto show after the worst of COVID-19, and it was the rest of world’s first major wake-up call about how much China’s homegrown car industry has grown up. The EVs produced in China are remarkably competitive, quickly displacing Western car brands that did well there for years, and are headed to Europe and other new markets soon.
So Auto Shanghai was a chance for the Western and other Asian car companies to show Chinese buyers that they still got it, baby. In a showcase far bigger than the New York Auto show a few weeks ago, Shanghai brought major debuts from Volkswagen, Toyota, Lexus, Polestar (which is owned by Geely anyway, but you get the idea), BMW and Mini as they all seek to win back the hearts of China’s auto consumers.
But what happened at a Mini booth is probably not what BMW wanted from the auto show. Reuters says Chinese social media users blasted the company this week, accusing it of discrimination at a Mini ice cream booth by allegedly only serving foreign visitors instead of domestic guests.
Here’s the viral video in question, which purportedly shows two Chinese women being told there’s no ice cream left, only for a Western man to be served some quickly afterward. (Here’s a backup copy I found on YouTube.) Apparently, the man in question may have also been a BMW employee.
宝马展台发个冰激凌还要区别对待中国人和外国人，宝马中国被骂的关了评论区了都????????????#BMW China pic.twitter.com/H7oweCegz7— 迷人的小红???????? (@miren_41319) April 20, 2023
Sounds silly, right? That’s because it is. But this blew up on social media in China (which is why it’s newsworthy.) Mini had to issue an official apology on its Weibo account, blaming what Reuters said was “poor internal management” and promising to improve training. The blowback on Weibo was palpable; pardon any clunky translations here:
The incident also appears possibly—and I cannot stress that enough here, as we don’t know for sure—related to a Chinese reporter or streamer being forcibly removed by auto-show security for trying to broadcast from the Mini stand. (It seems The Autopian’s website cannot embed Weibo videos yet, so see it here.)
Is this all objectively ridiculous? Yes, it is. But it shows the power that consumers have these days, even if a perceived slight seems minimal to us. Remember when Tesla faced actual, physical protests this year when it slashed its car prices? You might also recall the situation with Dolce & Gabbana a few years ago that may have permanently kneecapped the fashion house there.
But let’s not act like we’re much different. Here in the U.S. have had plenty of brand protests over the years, with some really dumb ones happening right now. Social media just enables, accelerates and exacerbates this trend.
Anyway, this isn’t the headline BMW and Mini wanted out of Auto Shanghai. But there’s no use crying over spilled ice cream, right?
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I wonder if this article is the reason that the Autopian has been blocked in China the past few days? But yeah, I saw this those videos in a lot of my car chat groups here, it seem to be a pretty hot topic. When I go to the Beijing auto show in a few weeks I better get my ice cream (so I can give it to my Chinese friends).
We all scream for internal combustion engine cream.
‘Did you bring enough to share with the whole show BMW?’
WTF is ice cream doing at a booth at a car show?
I’m all for BMW getting roasted in China. I don’t have sympathy for businesses that do business in China
Yet here you are, commenting via a phone or computer manufactured in China or which contains parts made in China…
They don’t really have a choice. Do you know any phones I can buy without giving money to China?
Yes… there are some:
That list may be a bit misleading. Samsung uses Qualcomm Snapdragon chips in many of their phones. Those chips are manufactured by TSMC, a Taiwanese company
So, uh, every car company out there? I guess you could drive a Morgan.
That was very German of Mini.
It’s funny that they’re trying to appeal to foreigners who most probably won’t be contributing to their China sales anyway, while pissing off their REAL potential customers in China.
Great work BMW, now they’ll probably go to an Ora showroom and grab an Ora somekinda-Cat instead.
Yep, somebody really blew it by not thinking it through. I assume they just didn’t want to give free ice cream to the every visitor, but never gave those two women any instructions on how to handle the problem they were creating.
Even worse, it might look to some like BMW were getting Chinese to discriminate against their own people, like there wasn’t any shame in doing so. That’s a terrible look.
The CCP is MORE than happy to have people criticize foreign governments or foreign private companies. It fits their domestic narrative.
Criticism of CCP is forbidden, and of Chinese domestic companies is carefully watched and potentially limited.
EDIT: That said, BMW can’t help but to arrogantly piss of customers lately, and I am not going to be seen as defending them.
Let’s leave the tired, outdated stereotypes in the past, which don’t accurately reflect the progress being made in today’s new China – for instance, thanks to public health outreach programs over the years, outspokenness has declined from the #1 cause of death in 1973 to only #3 today, behind cancer and getting in Xi’s way.
You had me going for a second there. 😉
I’m not sure if your “piss of” was meant to be “piss off” or “piss on”. They both work.
Does it say lemons on the side of that ice cream maker?
I was assuming it was because you had to pay a subscription to get the ice cream.
“No ice cream for you! ”
– The Dairy Nazi, probably
They do have a lot of experience with that particular N-word…
I want to know more about these celebrities that eat traffic because there is heavy traffic in my area that I want consumed. Especially the left lane campers. Eat them first.
I would have thought the new Mini alone would have been enough of an offense to upset anyone.
They took the GoGo boots away from the Green M&M!
Yeah, the US doesn’t drum up stupid brand controversies.
Did you not read to the end?
“But let’s not act like we’re much different. Here in the U.S. have had plenty of brand protests over the years, with some really dumb ones happening right now.”
I think most of us have been boycotting Bud Light all our drinking lives.
Hard to get a read on this one.
Sure, in the U.S. we’re certainly not above drumming up controversies over nothing. But this seems forced enough that it almost feels like the inverse of one of BMW’s awful, modern ad campaigns.
I guess I’m saying, I wouldn’t put it past the CCP to actively undermine foreign brands, now that they’ve absorbed what they wanted from them.
CCP is ABSOLUTELY seeking to undermine foreign brands. This is a narrative they want, or it would have been deleted from their internet right away.
However, BMW is kind of the king of unforced errors lately.
If Mini really wanted to make China mad, they’d post a meme comparing the Chinese leader to a certain ursine literary character who has a rumbly in his tummy.
They are saving that for the 2025 Mini Cooper John Cooper Winnie the Pooh Works edition. I also think Smart is changing their new digital assistant from a fox to Winnie The Pooh in China
In the mood *smack smack* for food.