BEIJING: US sports brand Vans removed "a small number" of submissions in a global sneaker design competition, including one featuring a yellow umbrella and people wearing helmets and masks, as the company distanced itself from months-long protests in Hong Kong.
Vans is the latest company caught in the crosshairs of anti-government protests in Hong Kong that have plunged the Asia financial hub into its worst crisis in decades.
Global companies such as Vans, fearing a consumer backlash from mainland customers if found to be political, are walking a tightrope in their marketing campaigns.
The Vans Global Custom Culture competition this year had received submissions from over 100,000 artists and creators from around the globe, and the shoe-maker invited the public to cast their votes for most popular designs eight days ago.
Media reports said a design from a Canada-based user named Naomiso was the most popular, according to votes cast online, before it was taken down on Saturday (Oct 5).
It featured a red bauhinia, the flower on Hong Kong's flag, and a yellow umbrella, a nod to the 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.
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.
"We have never taken a political position and therefore review designs to ensure they are in line with our company's long-held values of respect and tolerance, as well as with our clearly communicated guidelines for this competition," Vans said in a Facebook statement on Saturday.
"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," said Vans, a unit of VF Corp.
Winners will win US$25,000 and have their designs manufactured and sold by the brand.
Vans did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Tuesday.
EYE OF A STORM
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.
Another company dicing with Chinese anger is Tiffany & Co, which deleted a Twitter advertisement on Monday showing a female model with a hand covering an eye.
In an email 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.
A female medic was hospitalised after being hit by a pellet in the eye during protests. She became a symbol for what protesters say is excessive police force.
The advertisement has not created waves on China's social media.
Blizzard Entertainment, a US 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 US basketball league after a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive backing the Hong Kong protests.
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