BMW Skids into Ice Cream Melee at Shanghai Auto Show

Fukutaro Yamashita / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Visitors rush to a man, center, handing out ice cream in front of the BMW booth at the Shanghai Automobile Industry Exhibition on Friday.

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Chinese internet users berated German automaker BMW on Thursday, accusing it of discrimination at the Shanghai auto show amid claims workers at its Mini booth favored foreign over domestic visitors during an ice cream giveaway promotion.

Mini apologized for the incident in question, saying in a statement on its official Weibo account that it was caused by poor internal management and that it would improve training.

The topic “BMW Mini” became the second most-searched topic on China’s Weibo social media platform, with over 93 million views with users reposting pictures and videos, along with negative comments, of an incident that local media said took place on Wednesday.

The controversy comes as BMW and fellow German automakers participate in the Shanghai auto show in full force as they fight to stay on top of consumer trends in a country where domestic rivals have been aggressively taking market share.

One video showed two Chinese workers telling some local visitors to the Mini stand that the free ice cream had run out, only to offer a tub moments later to a Western attendee.

This has taken away my good feelings towards BMW, said one Weibo commentator.

A person familiar with the matter said the booth had finished giving out 300 servings of ice cream meant for visitors when the incident occurred and the foreigner in the video was a BMW employee.

The workers were temporary workers hired locally for the show, not BMW staff, the person said, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

In presentations earlier this week BMW’s Chief Executive Oliver Zipse talked up the importance of the Chinese market to the automaker, saying many of its cars’ features were inspired by China and how the country was ahead of the global curve in auto trends.

Chinese consumers have in recent years more closely monitored the behavior of big brands, becoming increasingly critical of foreign companies or local businesses over perceived slights or for not respecting China’s territorial claims.

Such criticism has at times snowballed into consumer boycotts. In 2019, Dolce & Gabbana saw China sales slow after it faced a backlash for an advertising campaign that was decried as racist by celebrities and on social media. The Italian luxury brand asked for forgiveness and said there was a “cultural misunderstanding.”

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