Mercedes-Benz hurts Chinese men’s feelings with video featuring feminist comedian

Society & Culture

Stand-up comedian Yang Li has enraged sensitive Chinese men with her jokes mocking them, and an online mob once forced Intel to “cancel” her. They’re angry again, and now luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz is the target of their ire.

Yang Li

In the latest episode of China’s intensifying gender war, German premium car maker Mercedes-Benz has become a point of contention for a recent marketing campaign that featured Yáng Lì 杨笠, the female comedian who has made a brand for herself by tackling gender politics and feminist issues in her standup routines.

The marketing material in question was a 18-second video (in Chinese) first posted by Vogue China, the Chinese language edition of the high-end global fashion magazine, which co-hosted a black tie, red carpet promotional event with Mercedes-Benz on October 13. In a video series called “Comfort New Chapter,” the magazine documents the event with each clip showing a celebrity invited to the event. In the clip about Yang, she is seen leaving the glamorous venue and hopping into a Benz car, where she sips on a drink in a disposable cup that looks like it was purchased from a cheap fast food chain.

As with other installments in the series, Yang does not say a single word in the video. But when Mercedes-Benz shared Yang’s video to its official Weibo account, angry men flooded the comment section of the post to express their disappointment and threaten a complete boycott of the brand. 

Some said that by working with Yang, Mercedes-Benz was making a statement that it aligned itself with feminist ideologies and wanted to cater to consumers who share similar beliefs. “Benz should have foreseen the backlash. What a foolish move to position itself as the enemy of China’s men,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). 

Other commenters, who described themselves as loyal Mercedes-Benz customers, said that Yang was not “high-class” enough to be the face of a global luxury car brand. “In what world is Yang Li qualified to work with Benz? Her entire brand is built on inciting gender wars with her men-hating jokes. She really cheapens the brand,” another person griped (in Chinese).

Can you actually afford a Mercedes-Benz? 

Yang’s fans, however, applauded Benz for featuring the controversial comedian in its campaign, a bold move that would potentially alienante it from what they called the “average yet confident men,” (普信男 pǔ xìn nán) a common subject of ridicule in Yang’s comedy. “This is a question for the men who complained that Yang would erode the brand’s value perception among its customers: Can you actually afford a Mercedes-Benz?” said (in Chinese) a female user on Weibo. To show off their purchasing power, a number of women posted photos of their Mercedes-Benz car keys on Weibo. “The backlash feels like a bunch of clowns whining about things they can never afford. I own a Mercedes-Benz car and I support Yang Li,” wrote another female Weibo user. 

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Known for her self-deprecating sense of humor and piercing jokes about men’s oversized egos, Yang rose to fame last year when she appeared on the stand-up contest Rock & Roast (脱口秀大会 tuōkǒuxiù dàhuì), where she routinely tackled women’s issues with unflinching honesty. In her most iconic one-liner, the 29-year-old comedian offered an insightful take on the male psyche that millions of Chinese women frustratingly related: “Why are men so ordinary, yet so confident?” 

These punchlines — made against the backdrop of China’s burgeoning feminist movement and a patriarchal baclash against it — earned Yang rave reviews, but also a negative reaction that was swift and predictable. An online mob of Chinese men has actively tried to end Yang’s career by accusing her of spreading hateful comments about them and “inciting gender-based antagonism among the masses.”

Brands associated with Yang have not been immune to the animosity. In March, the Chinese office of global semiconductor giant Intel faced an intense backlash from male users on social media after it used the comedian in an ad, in which she jokes that Intel has higher standards for its laptops than she can hope to hold for men. Although many women showed solidarity with Yang, Intel eventually removed the ad to placate the furious men who expressed an affront to their male sensibilities.

This time, although Mercedes-Benz didn’t delete the video, it restricted viewing access to it by making the post only available to followers on October 17. Its crisis management efforts also included filtering negative comments under the controversial video. Yang, on the other hand, revealed via her agency that she had no business partnership with Mercedes-Benz, and that she would take legal action against “malicious smearing and insults.”