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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ashton Kutcher and the PopChips Controversy

Ashton Kutcher did an ad for PopChips in which he plays a bunch of different characters looking for love. That’s the whole ad. For potato chips. One of those characters is “Raj,” a Bollywood producer, complete with stereotyped accent and brownface. Sigh. I think Anil Dash said it best: " … if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 so they can do a bad 'funny' accent in order to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course.”

The ad has since been pulled from the PopChips site amidst cries of racism. I actually wish they hadn’t done that, because I think in order to make an effort to eradicate racism (in all forms, and I think this ad was a result of the casual racism so prevalent in our society, rather than what is commonly thought of as the only form of racism: Klansmen actively plotting harm to people of color), we need to talk about it. Pulling it down and issuing an apology (which the CEO did, and it’s a pretty pat apology) means we don’t really have to talk about it anymore, and I think that’s antithetical to what’s helpful when it comes to improving race relations. I don’t think the ad should remain in play (more on this in a sec), but I DO think it would be more helpful to offer the thought process behind the ad, and to explain where, why, and how that thought process failed.

Also, and I freely admit I’m not an Ashton Kutcher fan, the ad is really not funny, nor is it particularly clever. That's a huge part of why it should come down. People doing funny voices? Feh, seen it. If the intention was to generate buzz about PopChips through a controversial ad … I mean, do better. Yes, it succeeded (there’s been a ton of discussion online and in social media spaces), but is that really how you want your product, which is fairly innocuous and not controversial on its own, to be known? And what’s the link between dating and PopChips? It’s like the Wheat Thins ad with Tracy Morgan – it feels very much like both companies just wanted celebrity endorsements (there’s another Wheat Thins ad with Alex Trebek that's not good; the message seems to be “Wheat Thins make you annoying at parties") and didn’t care about much else.

I doubt very much that Ashton Kutcher and the PR and ad teams behind this ad are actively working toward the oppression of people of color. I think it’s just a bad ad. I think it’s a bad ad that could maybe spark some dialogue about how prevalent casual racism is, but I think that’s pretty unlikely.

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