Part of a global advertising campaign, the commercial – it features NBA player LeBron James successfully dribbling a ball past some cartoon characters – was evidently unable to get around the monolithic presence of China’s State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).
Titled Chamber of Fear, the commercial was meant to encourage children to overcome any barriers, symbolised by the cartoon characters, that get in their way, according to Nike.
There were, however, two problems with it. The first was that the cartoon figures were representative of famous Chinese icons. The second was that James is an American.
In the commercial, James appears to successfully defeat two dragons, an ancient-looking martial arts teacher complete with long, wispy beard, and two women dressed in traditional Chinese costume – images that were subsequently construed as representing China itself.
After being broadcast on both local and state television in November, SARFT made an announcement earlier this week saying that the advert “violates regulations that mandate that all advertisements in China should uphold national dignity and interest and respect the motherland’s culture”.
Chinese authorities are sensitive
Although the government did not publicly elaborate on its reasoning, Nike spokesman Maurice Zhou said it was clear that people complained because James was a foreigner.
This is not the first time a major foreign company has caused offence with its advertising.
In 2003 Japanese car company Toyota showed an image of its latest model cruising along a Chinese street while several lion statues that traditionally stand guard outside imperial buildings bowed their heads in awe and respect.
Given China’s complaint that Japan has never fully apologised for it wartime actions, and the outright hatred that many Chinese express towards their neighbour, the imagery was seen to be in poor taste.
Japan would be upset if Mount
Like the Toyota commercial, Nike’s has sparked a furore in the media.
“What would Americans think if Chinese people made fun of Mount Rushmore or how would Japanese respond if we made fun of Mount Fuji?” asked the Beijing Xinjing Bao newspaper.
The answer, at least in the American case, would probably be that no one would care. But, according to Beijing resident Feng Cheng, an organiser of a club that aims to promote Chinese culture to foreigners, this case should not be seen as an over-reaction on the part of the government.
“In China, people don’t make fun of their national icons. This is the same across East Asia as people are very sensitive to public criticism.”
Typified by the infamous “No dogs or Chinese” sign that marked the entrance to an early 20th-century park in Shanghai, Chinese history textbooks are replete with examples of national humiliation at the hands of western imperial powers.
“… when a rich man makes fun of a poor farmer in front of him then the farmer loses face. All the farmer has is self-respect and that is now being taken away”
The lesson for the books’ young readers: “Don’t let your country be humiliated again.”
“In the case of the Nike commercial, you should look at it from the point of view of comparative status,” says Feng. “LeBron James represents America and the cartoon characters represent China.”
“When two people of the same economic standing tell jokes about each other, it does not matter, as might be the case among Western countries.
“But when a rich man makes fun of a poor farmer in front of him, then the farmer loses face. All the farmer has is self-respect and that is now being taken away,” Feng said.