Anil Dash: How to fix Popchip’s racist ad campaign
Somehow, despite the inevitable backlash, brands and advertising agencies continue to make really racially offensive ads to sell products, the latest being Popchips, which just pulled ads featuring Ashton Kutcher in brownface as “Raj.”
Not that I think America is postracial or anything – far from it – but as the country is increasingly diverse, and issues of race and ethnicity are so much at the front of public consciousness, you’d think ad companies and brands would steer clear overt racist stereotypes if only to avoid a PR fiasco. Apparently not. At least it gives comedians material to work with:
In light of the Ashton Kutcher PopChips scandal, I feel obliged to confess that in my AmEx spots I am also wearing brown face.
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) May 3, 2012
In honor of the PopChips scandal, let’s all watch Short Circuit 2 today & have our heads explode. #IndianGuyisActuallyFisherStevens
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) May 3, 2012
I’m not surprised that ad agencies would pitch ideas that rely on racial stereotypes. These things are rather likely to happen in an industry that’s extremely homogenous and part of a broader culture where structural and individual racism remain serious problems. What I am surprised by is how companies always seem so taken aback by and unprepared for any backlash against media that perpetuates stereotypes. It says a lot about an industry culture (and again, broader culture) that it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that their content might be received differently by people from different backgrounds, and people don’t seem to have any prior preparation or training to talk about issues of diversity.
Given that I was glad to see a response from Anil Dash that squarely put the responsibility for this ad on the creatives and industry culture that produced it. What’s often missing in justifiably angry responses to media like this is much discussion of how the material was produced in the first place – or a who, besides the brand and the actors involved, was responsible for it. Dash names the advertising and PR firms that were involved in conceptualizing and promoting the campaign – not something you see very often in protests against racism in media – as well as media figures who covered the campaign seemingly without realizing that it was offensive.
Popchips should not pull this ad down: Instead, they should leave it up and link to not an apology, but an explanation of how their process failed and resulted in this racist ad being created. I think this company doesn’t want its culture to be racist, and they can best demonstrate that by showing how they learn from examples where it happens despite their best efforts. It’s like if rat droppings were found in a bag of Popchips: You wouldn’t solve it by saying “We threw away that bag of chips!” You’d solve it by saying “Here’s what we’re doing to clean up things at the factory.”
The firm which led the creation of the ad, should name the team members who participated in its creation: Zambezi, which made this ad, should let its staff own the mistake and talk about how they’ll prevent it in the future. Don’t falsely feature the one or two people of color who undoubtedly were part of the team, but show them all together, talking about how they came up with this idea, and what the responses were in the room. If someone said, “I don’t know, this might not fly!” then share that with people so others in the future can better learn to trust their instincts on this. If your team isn’t very inclusive, and everyone thought it was okay because they come from similar cultural backgrounds where these kinds of offensive things aren’t considered hurtful, then talk about how it’s something you need to learn. It’s fine to say something like, “Our creative director is Brian Ford, and he grew up in Oregon where he didn’t get exposed to very many Indian people who could explain how hurtful this kind of media can be.” But don’t sweep it under the rug.
Boycotting a single brand without also calling out the range of people involved in producing and promoting something racially problematic doesn’t change much about the industry in the long run. This is an institutional problem, not a bunch of random, isolated problems. Writing off one company is only a solution until the next racist commercial comes along. People in the industry have to work to do better than they have for things to change; it would be nice if they did that out of personal conviction, but public pressure will do in a pinch. As Dash writes, conviction is hard to come by when metrics and impressions count more than than a small minority of upset viewers – which isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep trying to appeal to better impulses.
Understand, Keith Belling and Pat Turpin and Brian Ford and Chris Raih and Alison Brod and, yes, Ashton Kutcher: Right now you’re making the world worse. Not just for me, or a billion other Indian people, but for my son, who I am hoping never has to grow up with people putting on fake Indian accents in order to mock him. Maybe people won’t be familiar with that stereotype if you, yes you personally, can refrain from spending millions of dollars and countless hours of your time on perpetuating that stereotype in order to sell potato chips. Potato chips! You’re hurting people and demeaning them in order to sell your chips.
I think Dash is on to something important about the growing market power of marginalized communities to put more pressure on the industry. Even in the rather nasty climate of racism and racial resentment that’s been brewing since the 2008 election, racial offensiveness is something most brands don’t care to be associated with (though not something they seem to think much about before they run with an idea). Maybe the time is ripe for more assertive responses to racist ads that call on the industry to explain the thinking that goes into making these ads, and how they plan to improve that process in the future.