Mapping Contention: Avoiding Abominable Gaffes in Film and Media Public  

Article by Bobb Drake.

The status quo for global corporations and media doing business in the PRC has been to bow to Chinese influences and censorship pressures to avoid consequences such as getting their products or company banned in the market. With an increased public awareness of this practice comes an increased risk of public backlash, with consequences ranging from public relations issues to mockery to potential boycotting and financial losses.

Yet, in addition to the risk of outcry from the general public, companies also run the risk of actions taken by other national governments who are at odds with the Chinese position. One recent example involves, once again, the contentious Chinese nine-dash line map (see Nimdzi’s article on this issue here).

Scene from the animated film Abominable showing a map with the nine-dash line in the South China Sea.

The Abominable Gaffe

When the Vietnamese government discovered the map appearing in a scene in the animated movie Abominable, co-produced by American animation studio DreamWorks Animation and Chinese company Pearl Studio, they found that to be, well, abominable. 

The Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism revoked the film’s license in the country and pulled it from cinemas where it had premiered October 4.

Why? Vietnam sees the internationally unrecognized map as violating its sovereignty due to its own territorial claims behind the nine-dash line.

Moreover, tensions with China have escalated since this past summer with the presence of a Chinese vessel carrying out an energy survey within waters controlled by Vietnam. 

From a geocultural perspective, it might make sense that the map, commonplace in the PRC, appears in the film, as the story takes place in mainland China. In fact, DreamWorks’ motivation in partnering with Pearl Studio was in part to ensure that the film portrayed aspects of modern life in China in an authentic way. That might generally be seen as a laudable practice.

Yet, pragmatically speaking, this film was destined for a global audience, and the perception of viewers outside the PRC, particularly in the handful of countries/regions that have territorial claims within the nine-dash line—including Vietnam—should have been considered. Moreover, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in 2016 that the nine-dash line claims were for the most part not compatible with UNCLOS.

As an American company, DreamWorks Animation might have considered the potential consequences of taking sides in such a significant geopolitical dispute. Maybe they didn’t know. Or maybe they chose to use the map because of its authenticity within the cultural context of the PRC without considering how other governments might react. 

But maps—the visual representation of borders and territories and sovereignty—have long been a common source of geopolitical issues and cultural missteps for global media and corporations. And savvy companies build geocultural review (also known as culturalization) and geopolitical risk mitigation into their development process to inform themselves of potential issues and weigh the consequences of the decisions they make.

What could have been done?

If one takes the view that the map is appropriate within the cultural context of the PRC, perhaps the onus lay on the Vietnamese censors (and those of other countries involved in the disputes within the South China Sea) to have the scene redacted or adapted for their market. In fact, the head of Vietnam’s Cinema department, Nguyen Thu Ha, took ownership of the mistake, claiming responsibility for not catching the politically sensitive map when screening the film for release in Vietnam. 

Another solution might have been for DreamWorks not to include the contentious map at all, not to show that part of the map, or to place various photos, pictures, and sticky notes such as appear elsewhere on the map over the areas where the dashes would be in order to remain politically and culturally neutral on the issue.

Whatever the ultimate decision might have been, it is important to be aware of the potential risks inherent in maps in order to be informed about perceptions and reactions across markets.

Global companies need a partner like Nimdzi Insights to navigate their global business through the unchartered territory of emerging complex and highly sensitive geopolitical and geocultural issues, their ramifications and risk-mitigating strategies.

 

This article was researched and written by Bobb Drake. If you wish to find out more about this topic, please reach out to Bobb at bobb@nimdzi.com.

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