People visit the Mini booth at the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition on April 18, 2023.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

BMW has landed in hot water in China over tubs of ice cream.

The luxury German automaker’s Mini unit had to apologize repeatedly after being accused of discrimination against Chinese visitors when handing out free ice cream at the Shanghai auto show this week.

Videos circulating widely on social media Thursday appeared to show two Chinese workers at the Mini booth telling ethnic Chinese attendees the free ice cream had run out, before taking a tub out of the cooler and handing it to a Western man moments later.

The footage sparked a firestorm of outrage on the Chinese internet, where users lashed out at BMW for apparently giving foreigners preferential treatment. Some called for a boycott of the carmaker.

China is BMW’s largest market, having surpassed the United States about a decade ago. Last year, BMW Group delivered 792,000 vehicles to China, compared to 362,000 units for the United States and 878,000 units for Europe, it said in a statement.

In recent years, major Western brands have faced growing scrutiny in China, where consumers have become increasingly sensitive to perceived slights amid rising nationalist sentiment fanned by the government.

Following the backlash at the Shanghai auto show, Mini China issued an apology on Chinese microblogging site Weibo on Thursday afternoon, saying the promotion was meant to offer attendees a “moment of sweetness.”

“Because of our sloppy internal management and the dereliction of duty by our staff, we have caused unpleasant feelings for everyone. We sincerely apologize for that,” the statement said, adding that the company would improve training.

But the statement did little to calm public anger, which continues to dominate discussion on social media.

Reserved for staff

On Friday morning, Mini China issued another apology, saying the Westerners in the videos who got the ice cream were its staff members.

The company said it handed out 300 tubs of ice cream per day to visitors at its booth on Tuesday and Wednesday. It also reserved a small number for its employees, it said.

“The four or five foreigners you saw in the video are our colleagues. They also wore their employee badges,” the statement said.

It called for the public to be more understanding of the two female Chinese workers who handed out the ice cream, saying they were young and inexperienced. But the explanation failed to put an end to the controversy.

“You really don’t know how to write [an apology] do you,” said the top reply on Weibo with 31,000 likes. Another said: “I beg you, let’s spend some money and get a new PR team.”

On Weibo, the hashtag “BMW MINI apologizes” was viewed 530 million times on Friday. Several other related hashtags were also trending on the platform’s “hot search” list.

As Chinese consumers get richer, BMW cars have become a symbol of wealth and social status. In 2010, a contestant on a popular Chinese reality dating show declared “I would rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle” — an unabashed endorsement of materialism that has become an online meme.

The German carmaker joins a growing list of global brands that have come under fire from the Chinese public or faced boycotts for reasons ranging from not listing Taiwan as part of China on their websites to criticizing alleged forced labor in the country’s Xinjiang region. Many companies have had to issue apologies.

“Now, ‘national sentiments’ have occupied 100% of the brain capacity of many people, and they can feel discrimination in a wide range of things,” a user on Wechat, a popular super app, said about BMW’s ice cream controversy.

“Patriotism has almost become an instinctive reaction.”