Warner Bros. Film Group has issued an apology following a storm of criticism over tweets from the official “Barbie” film Twitter account that sparked controversy in Japan. The tweets featured memes that appeared to depict the iconic doll, Barbie, immersed in imagery related to the atomic bomb from Universal’s film “Oppenheimer.”
The posts led to strong public backlash and condemnation from the Japanese branch of Warner Bros., which labeled the tweets from the official US account as “inconsiderate” and demanded an appropriate response from the studio’s headquarters. It is extremely rare for a subsidiary to demand an apology from its parent company.
Social media had been inundated with unofficial fan-made “Barbenheimer” memes after the release of both blockbuster films on the same day in various parts of the world last month.
While the original tweets from the official “Barbie” account in response to the unofficial memes were deleted, screenshots shared on social media showed the account engaging positively with a meme that superimposed a mushroom cloud on Margot Robbie’s head, the star of the Barbie film. Another post depicted “Oppenheimer” actor Cillian Murphy carrying a cheerful Barbie against a burning backdrop.
Critics argued that these posts trivialized the tragic nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US Air Force in 1945, events that resulted in the instant death of at least 110,000 people and the suffering of tens of thousands more within the following year.
Despite the fact that the “Barbenheimer” hashtag is not part of an official Warner Bros. marketing campaign, Warner Bros. Japan expressed deep regret that the official Barbie account engaged with the posts. The Japanese branch issued a tweet on Monday stating, “We take this situation very seriously and demand an appropriate response from the US headquarters. We apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable by this inconsiderate response.”
Warner Bros. Film Group provided a statement to CNN on Tuesday, expressing remorse for the insensitive social media engagement and offering a sincere apology.
In the wake of the controversy, a counter hashtag, “NoBarbenheimer,” emerged on Japanese social media platforms, with users employing it to criticize the “Barbie” account’s blending of the two films.
The incident underscores the perceptual divide between Japan and the US regarding the sensitive issue of nuclear weapons. While the films were released on the same day, Japanese culture deeply acknowledges the horrors of the atomic bombings, and annual memorial ceremonies are treated as significant national events. The “NoBarbenheimer” reactions were not an indictment of the US for the use of nuclear weapons, but rather a response to the way the Barbie marketing team appeared to trivialize the subject through their posts.
As the “Barbie” film prepares to debut in Japanese theaters on August 11, this controversy highlights the need for cultural sensitivity and awareness when engaging in social media promotion on a global scale.