Perplexing decision behind controversial GM ad

Updated: 2013-05-07 11:10

By Zhang Yuwei (China Daily)

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Perplexing decision behind controversial GM ad

General Motors Co didn't get the reaction it was seeking from a recent commercial inspired by Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris", namely the scene in which the main character time-travels back to the Jazz Age.

The 60-second ad sparked anger in China for its soundtrack - the 2012 song "Booty Swing" in which Austrian DJ Parov Stelar heavily samples "Oriental Swing", originally recorded in 1938 by African-American jazz band leader Lil Hardin Armstrong.

Lyrics to the tune, which in GM's ad accompanies visuals of a white Western man getting into a red Chevrolet Trax SUV with a group of new friends who ride into the present day, refer to China as "the land of Fu Manchu" where girls dance and clap their hands while saying, "Ching, ching, chop-suey, swing some more".

Still, the lyrical references (Fu Manchu is a fictional character created by British novelist Sax Rohmer) prompted Hong Kong's South China Morning Post to label the ad "racist" in a headline. GM, which had been running the ad only in Canada and on its Chevrolet Europe website since early March, responded to that and other adverse publicity by replacing the Canadian ad with a revised version that doesn't include lyrics and pulling down the online European ad, company spokeswoman Ryndee Carney told Bloomberg News.

China is GM's second-biggest market, and the US automaker announced in April that it would increase its production capacity in the country by 30 percent in coming years.

Jeremy Haft, a professor in the Asian-studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, said the speed with which the ad was pulled shows GM needs to ensure its image in China is positive.

"But since ads are windows on the corporate soul, GM has revealed its true nature - it possesses a fundamental misunderstanding of consumers in its largest and fastest-growing market," he said.

Criticism also came from Chinese Internet users. On the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo, where international and domestic news is quickly dissected, people questioned GM's thinking in producing the commercial.

"On the one hand, GM says China is an important market; on the other hand, they made such an offensive ad to promote Chevy," wrote one Weibo user with the nickname hank111 in Shanghai. "Why would Chinese consumers buy their cars anyway? Are we Chinese that spineless?"

Ann Lee, an economics professor at New York University and author of the book What the US Can Learn from China, said she wasn't surprised at Chinese anger over the ad.

"GM should have exercised better judgment from the beginning and not have aired it at all," she said. "There are positive and negative stereotypes of all races and nationalities. To the extent cultural practitioners can avoid them, especially the negative ones, in anything publicly aired would help avoid controversy."

Carney, the spokeswoman, told Bloomberg that GM didn't mean to offend anyone and was "deeply sorry" over the ad. The company is reviewing its advertising processes "to make sure this doesn't happen again", she said.

Haft, author of All the Tea in China, which examines the United States' competitive edge over China and how it can leverage that to create jobs, said the ad reflects broader misunderstanding.

"Despite globalization and the volume of trade between the US and China, Americans know very little about Chinese history, people and culture. And what they do know is tainted by decades of China-bashing by the American media and politicians," he said.

Although GM's ad didn't air in the US, viewers here have been subjected to a number of spots suggesting tone-deafness regarding other cultures.

In February 2012, Republican US Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra aired a campaign TV ad targeting Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow. The spot, broadcast across the politicians' home state of Michigan during the Super Bowl, showed a young Chinese woman riding a bicycle near a rice paddy and, in broken English, "thanking" Stabenow for contributing to US government overspending and the loss to China of American jobs.

The coding in a Web page where the ad was posted includes the term "yellowgirl" - seemingly a reference to the character in Hoekstra's ad. Despite criticism over the ad, including from members of his own party, Hoekstra insisted that it wasn't racist. His campaign eventually took it down, however. (In November, the then-congressman lost his bid to unseat Stabenow from the Senate.)

Haft, the Georgetown professor, said misconceptions among the American public are influenced to some extent by negative remarks by politicians.

"The last presidential and congressional elections are a good example in which China-bashing was a constant refrain by both parties and amplified in the media," he said. "Despite all the economic evidence that trade with China creates and sustains millions of jobs in America, clearly bashing China resonates well with the American people."

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