Renault's promo videos showing controversial hand sign sparks outrage in S. Korea

SEOUL: Renault Korea, the South Korean subsidiary of French carmaker Renault, is grappling with a backlash over promotional videos that included a controversial finger-pinching gesture perceived as offensive to men in South Korea.

This gesture has a charged history in the country, as previous backlashes against it appearing on other content have threatened the sales and reputations of companies and even government institutions.

In a video promoting the carmaker’s new Renault Grand Koleos, posted on the Renault Inside YouTube channel on June 27, a female brand manager repeatedly made a pinching gesture known in South Korea as the “Megalian hand”.

This gesture is associated with Megalia, a now-defunct online feminist community in South Korea known for its provocative and controversial strategy of mirroring misogynistic content to expose misogynistic ideas.

The hand gesture, which mimics a pinching motion, is intended to mock the size of South Korean men’s genitals as a tactic to mirror the level of scrutiny that women’s physical appearance has been subjected to in the country.

Amid South Korea’s gender conflicts of the past decade, many men in the country find the gesture offensive. Companies and organisations have become targets of outrage whenever similar symbols have been spotted in their online content or advertisements.

In this case, the backlash was swift and intense. Online communities soon discovered that the same brand manager had made the gesture in promotional content for the Renault SM6 and Renault Arkana as well.

The repeated use of the gesture, seemingly out of context with the video content, fuelled further outrage.

Online users accused the brand manager of intentionally making the gesture to provoke and offend, leading to calls for boycotts of Renault vehicles.

The timing of the controversy is particularly problematic for Renault Korea, as it coincides with the launch of the Renault Grand Koleos sport utility vehicle, the company’s first new car in four years and part of a 700 billion won (S$685 million) investment.

Renault Korea responded by apologising and suspending the employee who was allegedly responsible.

But the damage had already begun to take its toll. Numerous online comments indicated a loss of customer trust, with some alleged Renault Korea salespeople reporting cancellations of pre-orders for the Grand Koleos and urging the company to resolve the issue swiftly.

“Given that cars are high-value consumer goods with a long lifespan, brand reputation plays a key role in purchasing decisions. If Renault Korea doesn’t navigate this issue well, it risks tainting the whole brand with misandry,” said a former consultant from a global brand consulting firm who asked to remain anonymous.

Caught in gender crossfire

This case is not the first time a company in South Korea has been targeted over suspected use of the Megalian hand gesture.

In 2021, major convenience store chain GS25 faced criticism for using a similar gesture in a poster. In 2023, gaming giants Nexon and Kakao Games were also targeted with similar complaints.

The roots of this symbol can be traced back to the late 2010s with the spread of the #MeToo movement and the 2016 stabbing murder of a woman in a public bathroom close to Gangnam Station in Seoul. These events brought the issue of misogyny in South Korea to the forefront.

Women in South Korea began voicing concerns over patriarchy and wage gaps, but men countered with grievances about compulsory military service with minimal compensation and societal pressures to provide financially.

While Megalia shut down in 2017, its controversial tactics generated an anti-feminist wave in the years following, and gender divisions that continue to simmer today.

Mishandled apology

Renault Korea may not have fully grasped the gravity and sensitivity of this issue, at least initially.

Experts in South Korea have criticised the company’s response as inadequate, suggesting it should have been more stringent and transparent.

On June 28, in its initial response to the backlash, the company removed all videos from its YouTube channel and posted a brief apology.

While it admitted it had failed to review the video thoroughly during production, the apology concluded with only a generic statement about Renault Korea’s commitment to equality and non-discrimination.

It did not address any specific actions taken against the brand manager allegedly responsible for the gesture.

The following day, the brand manager involved issued a personal apology, but it only worsened public sentiment because of her contradictory remarks: “I knew that the hand gesture was a problematic, hateful expression, but I didn’t realise that the hand gesture in my video would be interpreted as such.”

Ewha Womans University professor of communication and media Kim Yung-wook, who specialises in corporate public relations risk management, said: “It appears Renault Korea failed to employ what is called ‘dissociation communication’, which would clearly indicate that this was an individual’s mistake and not reflective of the company’s values.”

It was only in a second apology issued on June 30 that the company announced the suspension of the employee and the formation of an internal investigative committee.

Journalism and strategic communication professor Kim Soo-yeon of Sogang University said: “From the start, they should have detailed how internal screening processes failed – if they existed at all – allowing such a video to be uploaded”.

“Renault Korea needs to demonstrate a commitment to revising its entire corporate culture to eliminate misunderstandings and prejudices among consumers,” Ewha’s Professor Kim added.

Renault Korea chief executive Stephane Deblaise reportedly said on the company’s internal website on July 3: “We will systematise our internal content creation, communication and approval processes, as well as thoroughly implement internal ethics training to prevent future recurrences.” — The Korea Herald/Asia News Network
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