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Gere’s Tibet cameo Fiat ad angers China

June 21, 2008

By Guy Dinmore in Rome and John Reed in London

Published: June 21 2008

Fiat yesterday apologised to China for its new television advert which includes scenes of Tibet and Richard Gere, the Hollywood actor who is an outspoken critic of the country. Still, the Italian carmaker said it would continue to air the advert in Europe and expressed support for Mr Gere, whom was chosen “because he is a symbol of difference.”

The advertisement promoting the Lancia brand aired on prime-time Italian television during the European football championship this week. It provoked an angry response in China where feelings were still running high over comments by Sharon Stone, the movie star and Christian Dior endorser who had suggested the devastating Sichuan earthquake was retribution for China’s policies in Tibet.

“Fiat reiterates its neutrality in connection with any political matter, be it on a national or international basis,” Fiat said in a statement that extended apologies to the Chinese government and people.

Mr Gere has been a vocal supporter of Tibet for more than 20 years. In his latest testimony to a US Senate committee in April, shortly after the latest crackdown on anti-Chinese protests in Lhasa, Mr Gere attacked what he called “the brutal repression and calculated efforts to control religious practice and attack the very foundations of the Tibetan religious, cultural, and ethnic identity”.

The advert shows Mr Gere driving the latest Lancia Delta from Hollywood through Tibetan scenery. He then arrives in Lhasa and the Potala palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader who fled into exile in 1959.

Sergio Marchionne, Fiat chief executive, said he was keen on the advert when it was shown to reporters at the launch of the car on June 4, just days after Christian Dior pulled its Sharon Stone ads in China. Fiat said Mr Gere was donating his earnings from the commercial to his Tibet foundation.

Fiat’s share price dropped by more than 9 per cent yesterday. The fall was mostly attributed to remarks late on Thursday by Mr Marchionne forecasting “disastrous” car sales in Italy, Fiat’s largest market, this month after a 17.6 per cent drop in May.

The Tibet flap does not bode well for Fiat’s business in China, where it has a joint venture with local producer Chery Automobile to build 175,000 of its own-brand and Alfa Romeo cars in China from next year.

The Delta was meant to build the underperforming franchise outside Italy, where it sells about 80 per cent of its cars.

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