Free rides for short skirts

The ads got more brazen from there.

When Hitch added a feature letting drivers waive fares for passengers, it saw another marketing opportunity. In one ad, Didi asked three female passengers why they thought they should be given free rides. One woman in a black suit responded “because I am very womanly” while a woman in a low-cut dress answered: “Is this reason enough?”

In another ad, a driver explained why he would waive a passenger’s fare. “You have one skirt, and I have warm wind.” Warm wind is likely a play on words, referring to a car’s heater as well as yang, a Chinese philosophical concept representing maleness, compared with the feminine yin.

Didi Hitch's ads on why female passengers get to waive bills.
Why should you get free rides?
Image: Weibo/Diyi Caijing

Sleep with me

Such explicit ads weren’t just for Hitch.

Before Hitch was launched, Didi had run an innuendo-laden ad that asked: “Are you wet? Are you tight? Are you hard?” It appears to be from before 2014 because it shows Didi’s former Chinese name, which it changed that year amid a trademark dispute (link in Chinese).

In it, a cartoon man is standing in the rain, who in spite of being in a hurry, has been unable to hail a taxi. He is asked if he’s wet because of the rain, if he’s tight because his watch is squeezing his wrist, and if he’s hard because his legs have turned to stone—one of the ways to refer to muscle fatigue in Chinese.

Didi's suggestive ads before it changes its Chinese name (L), and one in 2016's World's Sleeping DY(R).
A suggestive Didi ad before its name change, left, and another ad for World Sleep Day in 2016.
Image: Weibo/Diyi Caijing

And in 2016, an ad pegged to World Sleep Day showed only text on a white background that read: “A spring wind that blows 10 miles couldn’t compare to sleeping with you.” Spring wind in Chinese also refers to animals waking from their winter hibernation and mating.

Gone too far

It’s unclear who made the final calls to approve these advertisements, but a Didi representative said it began taking down marketing materials “that could be considered inappropriate” starting in early 2016, when it began reviewing its ad campaigns and “disciplining the wrong kinds of content and responsible persons.”

The problem of sexual assault on ride-hailing apps isn’t unique to China—Uber, for example, has grappled with safety issues in countries like India and Mexico—but Didi’s cofounders in an apology noted they were operating in a competitive startup environment. “We raced non-stop riding on the force of breathless expansion and capital through these few years,” said its cofounders, Liu Qing and Cheng Wei, in a statement this week. “The only thing we can do at this moment of pain is to face the pain and take on our responsibility.”

As Didi does damage control, it’s hoping the backlash won’t be so fierce as to derail the business. Already, people have begun a #DeleteDidi (link in Chinese) campaign on the Chinese social network Weibo, and Didi’s app ranking has fallen (link in Chinese) from ninth to 61st on China’s iOS app store—its worst since May, when another female passenger was murdered.

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