Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
May 3, 2013

Chevrolet SUV ad contains 'Fu Manchu' reference: Racist?

CHINA - Responding to Chevrolet's "Original Reborn" commercial soundtrack containing lyrics that many deem racist, General Motors China spokesman You Jia has apologised and said the brand will be reviewing its advertising approval processes.

wide player in 16:9 format. Used on article page for Campaign.

Lead ad agency McCann made no public comments about the work in question.

The full statement given to Campaign Asia-Pacific is: "We are deeply sorry that a Chevrolet Trax advertisement contained material our customers would consider offensive, and we pulled the spot immediately.  We do our best to be sensitive when we create advertising, but in this case we clearly failed. We are reviewing our advertising approval processes to make sure this does not happen again."

Lyrics in the soundtrack for a worldwide TV campaign for the Chevrolet Trax compact SUV refer to China as "the land of Fu Manchu". Originally penned in the US in 1938, the lyrics for the song, "Booty Swing" by Austrian musician Parov Stelar, read in part:

Now, in the land of Fu Manchu,
The girls all now do the Suzie-Q,
Clap their hands in the centre of the floor
Saying 'ching-ching, chop suey, swing some more

"Fu Manchu" is a fictional Chinese villain created by British author Sax Rohmer, whom has been described as a racist character with anti-Chinese sentiment since the author's works stereotyped Chinese people as the "yellow peril".

"Ching-ching" and "chop suey" are also slightly pejorative terms used to mock people of Chinese ancestry due to their language and diet differences.

The carmaker has pulled the advertisement after receiving complaints. The spot had been running in Canada since March.

"It's hard to imagine that this sort of insensitive marketing appeared in a western country with such a large Chinese population," said Xu Guozhen, a vice president at Siemens AG's China operations, wrote on his Weibo microblog. "This was a mistake on the part of the GM management in North America."

"It was definitely a little insensitive, especially in today's age. The question for GM's agency is, why that particular song? There was no real reason to use it. No visual cues or storyline that would have made the tune relevant. There are thousands of songs from the 1930's that would have worked just as well, if not better," said Patrick Tom, executive creative cirector at TBWA Vietnam.

The spot has not aired in China, a key market in which GM aims to boost sales by 75 per cent by 2015. GM had applied for patents to launch the Trax in China, but until now there are no confirmed plans.

"As China is so important to Chevrolet, it probably wasn't the smartest call," said Swedish native Nils Andersson, chief creative officer of Y&R China. "Though it's difficult to hear the lyrics anyway. More a case of a commercial getting way too much attention, as it's a pretty ordinary piece."

James Mok, Asia Pacific executive creative director of Draftfcb, agreed. "The idea isn't racist but the track ends up putting an unnecessarily ugly spin on the ad. I'm sure it was never intended that way, but everyone concerned in making the commercial was clearly naïve regarding the consequences of the lyrics".

While the music is stylistically suited to the setting, the lyrics have no bearing on the idea, Mok said, but, "The fact that so many people involved in making the ad decided it was okay says a lot about their understanding of non-European cultures."

"Certainly it is fair to say that the selection of the song is ill-advised. The lyrics are based on a song written in the late 1930s, a time when cultural mores were very different from today. Some parts of our collective history are better left forgotten," said Stewart Devlin, chief creative officer, Red Peak Group.

Rogier Bikker, creative partner of Dutch agency Energize, described it as a "storm in a teacup". "Pulling the ad generated more negative PR than the so-called 'racist' lyrics would ever do," he said. "Shooting themselves in the foot by trying to be non-offensive. Instead, they should have left it in and make a joke about it. Irony works in these cases. The China team of Chevrolet could have even made a video of themselves singing the 'offensive' lyrics in the office. Just to show that they're not offended, and neither should you."

Bryce Whitwam, managing director, Shanghai at Wunderman, said from a creative perspective, he quite liked the ad's juxtaposition of Chevrolets' classic truck roots with the modern era. "But I had to really strain to listen to the lyrics."

Whitman said the song is only racist as some people have interpreted it. "Racism is relative to the audience," he added. "I can't imagine it was intentional for GM or their agency to convey racist messages in their ad. But if people are offended, then yes, it's probably a good idea not to run it because nobody wants negative publicity." 

Referring to a recent Lenovo ad (below) for comparison, Whitman pointed out that it could make "Africans look like backward people compared to the modern, enlightened Chinese girl, who is using a 'proper' instrument while her band members still play prehistoric drums made of animal skins. I'm sure Lenovo didn't see any harm in it and nobody in China saw it as racist, hence they ran the ad." 

Still, in today's digitally connected world, Whitman said brands and agencies must be "a bit more mindful" of the fact that work done for local markets can have global effects on public opinion. "But at the same time there's always room for flexibility, especially given cultural context," he concluded.


What do you think is considered as racist? Campaign Asia-Pacific welcomes more comments.

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