A popchips ad featuring Ashton Kutcher in “brownface” was launched, skewered and pulled in less than 24 hours. The new $1.5 million ad campaign showed Kutcher as four characters — among them a fictional 39-year-old Bollywood actor named Raj — in a parody of an online dating service. Except Kutcher and popchips, bags of chips that are popped and not fried, were looking for love in all the wrong places, and in more ways than they may have intended.
The ad has been removed from popchip's YouTube channel and Facebook page. The company already sent an official apology via different media outlets. CEO Keith Belling posted his own apology on the company's blog for what was “a light-hearted parody featuring a variety of characters that was meant to provide a few laughs.”
With a few strokes of makeup both real and imagined, the Two and a Half Men star and popchips tapped into an ugly history of minstrel shows that date back to the 19th century when African, Asian and Native Americans were racialized for entertainment.
For the San Francisco-based company, the decision to use “brownface” in one of its ads was even more poignant given the city's former reputation. In Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Robert G. Lee described the city's popularity among major minstrel troupes as a top destination. It was to the extent that a well-known blackface perfomer at the time E.P. Christie changed his company's name to Christie's San Francisco Minstrels.
No stranger to marketing, Kutcher has appeared in ads for brands such as Nikon. And as a member of Hollywood's elite, he may have thought his turn as Raj would appeal more than infuriate. After all, Hollywood has presented its fair share of cross-racializing in recent past: Mike Myers as an Indian relationship guru; Marlon and Shawn Wayans as Caucasian women; and Robert Downey Jr. supposedly satirizing the practice in Tropic Thunder. A few of Kutcher's industry friends — from Ryan Seacrest to Diddy — tweeted their thumbs-up.
With the ad pulled, it remains to be seen whether this is a recipe for PR gain or disaster. The ad campaign is not completely scrapped: Three of Kutcher's exaggerated portraits are still in circulation.
For more on this story, read The Informer on: Ashton Kutcher Is a Philandering, Racist Toolbag? VIDEO.
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Follow the author on Twitter at @chrstnchiao.