How To Fix Popchips' Racist Ad Campaign

Update: I just got off the phone with Popchips founder Keith Belling, who was sincere and contrite as he offered a thoughtful, apologetic response that indicates he understood much of what I was trying to say here. I’m cautiously optimistic to see the company’s response, and willing to give them time to do it properly. Maybe we can get a good result.

I like Popchips; I probably eat them once a week. Well, I used to. But they stopped that habit, and revealed a much larger, more complex problem with their company and with the ecosystem of people and companies that they partner with.

Popchips asked their celebrity spokesperson (and Popchips investor, if this Quora thread is to be believed) Ashton Kutcher to make a series of advertisements for their product. Pretty standard stuff, though the idea of tying the campaign to his status as a newly-single man is a bit odd since he went through a fairly prominent divorce that ended with a noticeable amount of public drama. Tastelessly cashing in on one’s personal life is the stuff of celebrity, though, so let’s sell some potato chips!

I’ve always wanted to have very positive feelings about Ashton Kutcher — he’s a totally mainstream celebrity who seemed to have sincerely embraced the tech startup world that I spend so much of my time in, and that should be a validation of our impact. Then I saw this shit right here:

Don’t watch it; It’s a hackneyed, unfunny advertisement featuring Kutcher in brownface talking about his romantic options, with the entire punchline being that he’s doing it in a fake-Indian outfit and voice. That’s it, there’s seriously no other gag.

Naturally, a bunch of us (initially mostly Indian diaspora members whom I follow on Twitter) started complaining about it, and a number of like-minded allies also registered their offense as well. I can’t imagine I have to explain this to anyone in 2012, but 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. Make some different decisions.

We Can Do Better

Here’s where I want us to do something different. I don’t want to merely say “Indian people in the U.S. are going to boycott Popchips!” Or to just get the usual mumbled apology for the company where they offer the bullshit non-apology apology of saying “We’re sorry if anyone was offended” and then take the ad down, but continue on with the campaign, padding out the apology with a few generic tweets to a contrite blog post.

We’ve all seen that shit before, but I want to do better.

I think we can attack the process by which these broken, racist, exploitative parts of our culture are created. I think the people behind this Popchips ad are not racist. I think they just made a racist ad, because they’re so steeped in our culture’s racism that they didn’t even realize they were doing it. (If you don’t quite follow what I mean there, you need to learn about Jay Smooth’s How To Tell People They Sound Racist.)

Here’s what I want to have happen instead:

  • 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.
  • The PR firm which promoted this campaign should acknowledge its failure:Alison Brod PR, which proudly proclaims its investment in, and promotion for, this campaign and for Popchips, also bears a lot of responsibility here. At a fundamental level, a good public relations firm is supposed to protect its clients from communications mishaps and errors in judgment that are obvious or preventable, like this one. But putting that shortcoming aside, the firm likely had a hand in coordinating the Popchips Twitter presence where other celebrities such as Diddy and Kim Kardashian and Ryan Seacrest had their accounts used to promote the campaign. Now they are tainted with being associated with tweeting links to racist ads, which probably jeopardizes future relationships they might have had with Brod PR. Again, this is something that’s addressable by talking about the culture of the company, and what changes will have to be made so that there’s enough knowledge (and courage!) to identify when clients have the potential to send out a racist message, and to stand up to those clients to make sure they don’t do so. Alison Brod needs to be the person who acknowledges the failure of responsibility on this campaign.
  • Ashton Kutcher should personally apologize: And not just for the jokes on Two and a Half Men!

There are things any celebrity shouldn’t do, regardless of the paycheck. This is of particular importance to me because, oddly, Ashton Kutcher and I cross paths professionally in some ways.He advises or invests in a lot of startups, including notable ones like Foursquare and Square and Flipboard and AirBnB, if you believe this crowdsourced Quora list. We even share some mutual advisorships as I understand it, with companies like Vox Media and Votizen (both of which I advise) and the UN social media campaign against malaria (which I support) all being areas of common interest, though I’ve never encountered Kutcher in those contexts. I met him once at a conference, and he seemed nice and pretty smart; Friends who’ve talked to him about their companies indicated that they genuinely felt he had something to contribute aside from his celebrity. Because he’s of unusual prominence in the tech space, and because so many of those technical companies have key employees or founders of South Asian descent who’ve given pieces of their own company to Kutcher, the onus is on him to respect his business partners. This begins by communicating specifically about what he did wrong. But frankly, Kutcher’s apology would be the easiest and most obvious part of this process, and thus the least valuable.

  • The media who covered this campaign should admit their blindness to the obvious offensiveness of this campaign.Stuart Elliott in the New York Times and Sarah Anne Hughes in the Washington Post notably covered this campaign with no note of how obviously offensive the featured ad is. While Hughes has since updated her post to reflect some of the blowback, it’s astounding that this wouldn’t be obvious on first glance to those who are paid to understand media and culture. Worse, the fawning and non-critical coverage in venues like the New York Times lets PR firms like Brod and ad companies like Zambezi count this sort of campaign as a success. “Look how many media impressions we got!” There’s also an egregious abdication of critical duty in not pointing out that this ad campaign doesn’t make any sense. If Kutcher is the “President of Pop Culture” (which he obviously can’t be, because I am), then why is this series of ads about dating? If the site they’re encouraging people to visit is about a premise that you’re “dating” these potato chips, why is Kutcher trying to promote a title for himself? And why would someone who just went through a messy, acrimonious public divorce be a positive image for a brand that wants you to get involved romantically with its chips? I’m no New York Times or Washington Post writer, but I caught these subtle errors in the campaign, even as an amateur.

But back on topic: We need to change the way companies respond to the constant stream of racist and sexist advertising campaigns that they launch in the media. The rote, scripted response when an offensive ad faces complaints is to have the featured star (Kutcher, in this case) and a PR spokesperson for the brand both put out tepid apologies. The ads get pulled off the air or off YouTube, and then they wait for the dust to clear.

What Will Make Them Change

Those superficial corrections don’t change the process. Back at the office, the Chief Marketing Officer knows that all the people who hate that brand followed them on Twitter for the day to see how they’d respond, so they later crow to the CEO, “We got a 12% bump in social media metrics, looks like I get my bonus!” The PR firm says “Well, aside from the tiny minority of people who complained, we actually got a ton of media mentions, so I can still use this to pitch ourselves to our next client!” The advertising firm says, “We can still talk about making an ad that got millions of views on YouTube, and having worked on a multimillion dollar campaign for a national consumer brand”.

And the end result is, nothing actually changes. Nobody is made to actually understand what they did wrong, with the lesson instead usually being “Well, you can’t please all the people all the time.”

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.

Tweet to @popchips

Here’s the thing, Popchips: I think you want to do the right thing. And I believe you can. I think you can say honestly, “We made a mistake, and didn’t realize how serious it was. This is how we’re changing the way our company works, and the way we listen to people and value inclusive perspectives, so that we don’t make these mistakes in the future.” Because you have a good product! Remember that? I know it’s old-fashioned, but sell your product on the virtues of being a good product! I promise that’ll work, and be more sustainable long term, than hitching your brand to the public’s knowledge of the dating life of a recently-divorced celebrity who’s willing to perform in brownface.

Go make things right, Popchips.