The story of a carjacking in Jilin province, China, seemed like the perfect opportunity for the local Buick dealership to plug its OnStar GPS-equipped vehicles on the 600-million-strong social network, Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
However, as details of the car theft unfolded, the PR plug on the company’s Weibo page turned into a nightmare for Buick, and offensive to the many people who were emotionally invested. China’s public was captivated by the story of the SUV with a two-month-old child inside stolen in Jilin. When the news broke, thousands of police officers spanned the province and nearby provinces looking for the vehicle and child as the nation anxiously awaited updates.
The car and child were missing for two days until a man turned himself into authorities, confessing he had stolen the vehicle, abandoned it, and brutally murdered, then buried the baby in the snow.
Before the grisly details were released, Buick posted the following on its profile page:
"A few thoughts following the Changchun stolen car incident: When buying a car it's completely okay to choose higher technology. Tianhe Buicks carry the OnStar GPS system, allowing the lockdown of a stolen vehicle at any time and place. An easy heart, piece of mind, why not buy a completely safe Buick!!!!! Sales Hotline: 024-86547880 86547881 QQ:521279389 2523275273 www.inthbuick.com."
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The advertising also featured pictures of new Buick models, but also included the well-circulated photo of the missing (at the time) infant.
According to a post on BrandChannel, a site that keeps track of branding strategies of various companies, the post unsurprisingly, provoked an angry reaction from Chinese netizens, many of whom called the dealership “virtueless,” "tasteless" and “immoral.” Other users simply said, “Go die.”
Buick later deleted the post, but by then it was too late. Many Weibo users had already taken screen shots of the “insensitive” post, and the rest is viral history. By Wednesday morning “Liaoning Tianhe Buick” had become the most popular term on Weibo, second only to “Changchun,” the city where the abandoned vehicle was eventually found.
Buick tried to recover from the PR mess by following up with an apology on the same account, which read:
"A solemn apology: At 11:45 pm on March 5 Liaoning Tianhe Buick improperly posted to its Weibo. To the family of the victims and to the public, we very deeply apologize for any emotional damage and hurt feelings."
By Wednesday afternoon, “Liaoning Tianhe Buick” was the top trending topic on Weibo, as it seems other users were not satisfied with the apology and were demanding that the dealerships' employees pay respects to the slain baby, Haobo, by attending a vigil for her.
Buick’s Weibo page has not responded since its previous apology.