The idea of a passport being withheld by an ex-boyfriend is a haunting image for those in abusive or manipulative relationships—so it’s understandable that many took issue with a new Hong Kong tourism ad that centers on that scenario.
In “The Camera,” part of a recent tourism campaign from the Hong Kong Tourism Board promoting the shopping-centric Sham Shui Po neighborhood, we see a woman desperately searching for her passport so that she can leave China to pursue her photography degree. She soon realizes it’s in the hands of her ex-boyfriend (or perhaps current boyfriend) who doesn’t want her to leave.
What follows is a frustrating scavenger hunt across the neighborhood, in which he’s planted clues among the spots where their romance first bloomed. We also see that her camera was smashed against a rooftop, and while it’s notably left unclear whether that was his doing or hers, it definitely seems to have happened in the context of a heated argument.
In the end, the camera is replaced, and the couple is all smiles. It’s meant to be a happy tale of rekindling a romance, but the scenario didn’t come across as a charming one to many of its viewers.
“Stop romanticizing this. This is not romantic,” noted one response on Twitter. “This is controlling, manipulative and abusive. This is not love.”
“Fun fact: my abusive ex husband would steal my passport to control me,” replied another. “Not sure what the ad agency who came up with this was thinking, but clearly they have missed the mark.”
The criticism wasn’t limited to international audiences. “As a hong konger,” said one tweet, “what kind of abusive backwards shit is this?”
British news site The Independent described it as a “new contender to the throne” for worst tourism ad.
The campaign was created by agency network Grey’s Hong Kong office. Adweek has reached out to Grey for comment on the criticisms and will update this story if we hear back. The Hong Kong Tourism Board has not publicly responded to those who’ve complained about the ad online.
The “Treasures of the Heart” campaign, directed by Chan Chi-fat, includes other videos that are far less controversial. One shows a young entrepreneur’s plan to open a repair shop, while another portrays a fashion designer’s search for just the right detail.