The biggest PR disaster so far this year in China is happening right now.
The far and away top trending topic on 600-million-strong microblog Weibo is "长春" ("Changchun"). It's about the a baby named Haobo who was abducted when the SUV she was sleeping in alone was stolen in Jilin Province on Monday. Tuesday night, as the obsessed nation posted about the baby, a man turned himself in to police and "confessed that he had strangled the baby and buried him in the snow."
As events were unfolding, one of Buick's dealers in China decided the Changchun tragedy would be the perfect subject to tout features on its new model cars.
Liaoning Tianhe Buick, a dealership in Jilin's neighbor province, posted the following (now deleted) on its Weibo page (as a reader points out, before anyone knew the baby had been murdered):
"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, a piece of mind, likewise why not buy a completely safe Buick!!!!! Sales Hotline: 024-86547880 86547881 QQ:521279389 2523275273 www.inthbuick.com."
The posting included a picture of new Buick models sandwiched around the much-circulated picture of the tragic infant.
Needless to say, Weibo users are incensed. Some called the Buick dealership "virtueless." Others called for the account to be suspended while others used curses. One said simply, "Go die."
Liaoning Tianhe Buick has deleted the post from its Weibo account, but the screenshots live on and continue to be forwarded around China's social networks.
In this case, the ongoing "too soon" meme comes to mind, however this is more like a "never should have happened."
UPDATE: On Wednesday morning (Feb. 6) "Liaoning Tianhe Buick" had become the second most popular term on Weibo, after only "Changchun."
At 2:00 am Wednesday morning, Liaoning Tianhe Buick posted an apology to its Weibo account: "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."
UPDATE 2: By noon Wednesday, "Liaoning Tianhe Buick" had become the top term on Weibo. Outraged users raged against the dealer--at times calling the Buick brand into question. Some demanded a better apology or for Tianhe employees to appear at a vigil for Haobo. Meanwhile, others engaged China notorious "human flesh search engine" to personally out boss of the dealership and, subsequently, flog him publicly.
And it gets worse for Buick. As the story of the Tianhe dealership expands, online contextual ads for Buick are appearing alongside news stories about the promotion by Liaoning Tianhe Buick and in turn being screenshot and reposted by Weibo users (below). Maybe hoping (stupidly) to wait it out, the Tianhe Buick Weibo account has remained silent since the short, 2:00 am apology.