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Dunkin’ Donuts’ accidental racist slur?

Over the weekend, an ad campaign in Thailand run by Dunkin’ Donuts led to criticism over its “racist” nature.

A steady stream of news reports has been erupting all over the Internet with the likes of Associated Press, The Guardian as well as many other news publications calling the ad a racist slur.

It has also been accused of being “bizarre and racist” by US human rights group Human Rights Watch.

All this has eventually resulted in the campaign being pulled.

However, according to Associated Press, the campaign hasn’t ruffled many in Thailand, saying it is common for advertisements to use racial stereotypes in that market.

“A Thai brand of household mops and dustpans called “Black Man” uses a logo with a smiling black man in a tuxedo and bow tie. One Thai skin whitening cream runs TV commercials that say white-skinned people have better job prospects than those with dark skin. An herbal Thai toothpaste says its dark-colored product “is black, but it’s good,” said the Associated Press article.

Mind the cultural issues and stereotypes

Many other brands have experienced cultural faux pas as campaigns or branding go across cultures.

Take for instance, EY’s global rebrand that turned out to be the name of a racy homoerotic magazine in Spain. Or how popular Hong Kong-based clothing brand named Wanko, whose name alludes to masturbation in Western cultures?

Either way, regional marketers say that Dunkin’ Donuts could have avoided the slur.

“Localising a message is crucial, but certain sensitive topics should always be delicately handled regardless of the intended market,” said regional director Asia, Karen Eidsvik Moody, Subway International.

“In a world with global digital reach for advertising it is becoming more complex for marketing teams to ensure that they don’t offend anyone. I think that for any campaign that’s a bit different to your normal message, companies need to be careful to consider all possible issues,” said Eidsvik.

Robert Gaxiola, creative partner, Mangham Gaxiola thinks the brand should have stayed away from any stereotypes in the first place.

“As an American, I am quite sensitive to the use of advertisers using any stereotypes at all. We should never use them, ever. We are hyper-sensitive on the subject, and given our shameful civil history, for very good reason.”

“When I first came to Asia in 1995 I saw a toothpaste brand called Darkie which has a man in Blackface on pack. This blew me away. (It has since changed its name to Darlie and removed the black faced logo.) I think no brand should ever allow fake accents or a caricature of people to hawk a product or service because that slope is just too slick and no brand wants to reinforce any kind of stereotype.”

However, Gaxiola did not find the Dunkin’ Donut ad particularly offensive. “She (the model in the ad) is painted with black makeup for sure, but not in the way Al Jolson was for the Jazz Singer in the 1930s. Their headline for the poster didn’t have any racial undertones either. But sure, people maybe were offended, just as I was when I first saw Darkie Toothpaste. Every advertiser runs this risk.”

Dunkin’ Donuts’ reaction

In a telephone interview, the company’s CEO Nadim Salhani in Thailand claimed the ad was innocent, dismissing the criticism as “paranoid American thinking” and said it was absolutely ridiculous.

“I’m sorry, but this is a marketing campaign and it’s working very well for us,” he told The Guardian, adding that his daughter was the model used in the advert.

“We’re not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?”

However, Dunkin’ Donuts’ US headquarters has apologised and the campaign has been pulled down. “We are working with our Thailand franchisee to immediately pull the ad. DD recognises the insensitivity of this spot,” Dunkin’ Donuts said in a tweet posted on its official US website.

The ad promotes Dunkin Donuts’ “Charcoal Donut,” featuring a smiling woman with blackface makeup and right pink lipstick. The copy in Thai reads: “Break every rule of deliciousness.”

Marketers, what do you think? Watch the ad here and decide for yourself.

dunkin donuts 2

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