U.S. sports brand Vans has removed "a small number" of submissions in a sneaker design competition including one apparently giving a shout out to Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, as companies weigh the risks of angering China.
Global companies are walking a tightrope in their marketing campaigns, fearing a backlash from Chinese customers if deemed to be expressing solidarity with the anti-government protests that have plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis in decades.
The U.S. luxury jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co deleted a Twitter advertisement posted on Monday showing a female model with her hand covering her right eye, which some people interpreted as supporting the protesters.
A female medic was hospitalized after being hit by a pellet in the eye during protests in August. She became a symbol for what protesters say is excessive police force.
In an emailed response to Reuters, Tiffany spokesman Nathan Strauss said the campaign image was photographed in May and was not intended to be a political statement of any kind.
"We regret that it may be perceived as such, and in turn have removed the image from our digital and social media channels and will discontinue its use effective immediately," Strauss said.
Vans last week invited the public to vote for their favorite sneaker design from more than 100,000 submissions from around the world in a Vans Global Custom Culture competition.
Media reported that a design from a Canada-based competitor named Naomiso won the online vote before it was taken down on Saturday.
The design featured a red bauhinia, a flower that symbolizes Hong Kong and is on its flag, and a yellow umbrella, a nod to 2014 protests that some refer to as the umbrella revolution. A group of people wearing helmets, masks and goggles can be seen on the side of the sneaker design.
"Based on the global competitions guidelines, Vans can confirm that a small number of artistic submissions have been removed. This decision was taken to uphold the purpose of Custom Culture," Vans, a unit of VF Corp, said in a Facebook statement.
Vans did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Tuesday.
A search of the username Naomiso on the Custom Culture's website did not yield any result on Tuesday.
Some people in Hong Kong have called for a boycott of the sneaker brand on Facebook while some retailers have suspended sales of Vans products.
"Starting from today, every branch of our company will suspend sales of all Vans products," said Search Sneaker Shop, one of the best-known sneaker stores in Hong Kong, in a Facebook post on Saturday.
However, mainland Chinese users on the Weibo social media platform praised Vans for getting rid of the design, after being enraged by it at first.
"Please everyone let's support Vans this time. The Hong Kong losers are starting to boycott Vans, but the mainland market will lift it up," said one Weibo user.
Blizzard Entertainment, a U.S. video game developer, said on Tuesday it had removed video-on-demand (VOD) replay of a Hearthstone match, after a masked Hong Kong player called for the liberation of the region in a post-game interview.
Chinese state television, meanwhile, said it would not air NBA exhibition games played in the country this week, heaping pressure on the U.S. basketball league after a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive backing the Hong Kong protests.