This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
How many controversies does it take for businesses to realise that making fun of racial stereotypes isn’t a good look for their brand? Apparently, no amount of online backlash is enough for this Singapore-based company to learn its lesson.
An online ad by language tutoring agency TUTOROO saw it drawing flak for its racist and misogynist portrayal of Chinese girls.
In the ad, a white man with a British accent spots a pretty Chinese woman at a bar, chases after her and asks for her number. In response, the woman uttered a string of confusingly crude words in a thick Chinese accent.
“Sex sex sex. Free sex tonight,” she says, to the bewilderment of the British guy. Then, she takes his phone and keys in an illuminating sequence of numbers: 6663629. When read aloud in a Chinese accent, the numbers sound like a direct invitation to hook up.
In the last part of the ad, the guy is seen tutoring the girl in English, correcting her pronunciation of the number six. The website of the language tutoring agency, tutoroo.co, then flashes on the screen to conclude 30 seconds of unadulterated bigotry.
The Singapore-based start-up, which offers language tutoring services in several cities around the world, describes itself as a “marketplace connecting students with qualified tutors nearby.”
The video was first posted on Facebook last year but went viral last week after TUTOROO shared it again on Twitter.
It’s hardly surprising that the video attracted widespread criticism.
But TUTOROO isn’t apologising for it. Instead, it handled the backlash with a zealous crusade about how the ad is funny, not insensitive.
“We believe we can make fun of any language or accent, and we will,” TUTOROO tweeted.
They also directly responded to critics in a series of unfiltered tweets.
In an absurd exchange with a Twitter user who expressed her unhappiness about the racist ad, TUTOROO fired curt, passive-aggressive replies that totally missed the argument.
“Giving a sassy snapback to a Chinese girl who’s genuinely disgusted by the fetishisation in your video isn’t a good look,” said the Twitter user @morningsbell.
TUTOROO’s response? “You should relax and listen to more music.”
"Nobody asked you to follow us," the brand told one critic.
The founder of TUTOROO, Nicholas Vanhove, also took to his personal Twitter account to defend the ad.
“We released this video a year ago on @Facebook,” reads his tweet, “People loved it. 0 complaint.”
Apparently, the ad garnered some LOLs for its creativity when it was published on Facebook a year ago. However, when it was reposted on TUTOROO’s Twitter page on January 23, its stereotypical portrayal of Chinese girls enraged netizens.
“The ad is told from a white male gaze and reinforces the superiority of the English language,” said Tam Hau-Yu, a researcher whose work focuses on postcolonial, feminist, critical race and class theories, told Campaign.
"And this is juxtaposed against stereotypes of East Asian female exoticism, sexual desirability and availability, as well as the 'essential' laughability, crudeness and otherness of Chinese languages for good measure.”
TUTOROO argues that the ad isn’t technically offensive considering that they also made fun of other non-native English accents in their other ads, such as French and Arabic speakers.
However, like in all cases of marketing boo-boos, context is important. Mocking Chinese speakers for their accents and insinuating that Chinese women are floozies is unquestionably offensive when we consider the historical oppression of Chinese people. The ad perpetuates a sense of Western superiority and Chinese inferiority that endures across societies today.
Even native English speakers who don’t look “native enough” have to endure micro-aggressions that reveal the palpable secret hierarchy of English accents.
It’s now 2020 and yet we still bear witness to flagrant media tropes that rely on the mockery of racial stereotypes. They might have elicited a snicker in the early 2000s, but can we all agree that bigotry-driven jokes have long gone out of fashion?
Find Koh Ewe on Instagram.