An online ad for “popchips” snacks starring Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher has sparked controversy and derision over Kutcher’s Indian accent and the ad’s racist tone. But although some Indian Americans are offended by the ad, others are saying it’s no big deal.
The ad, which was taken down from popchips’ site but can still be viewed at http://bit.ly/K0D33V, shows Kutcher in brilliantly colored Indian garb, with a brown face, a black wig and moustache.
As part of a dating parody video in which Kutcher plays a range of comical characters, the “Raj” segment” shows him riffing on what sort of girl he likes (Kim Kardashian types), and shows him dancing to faux-Bollywood music.
A spokesperson for the San Francisco-based popchips told India-West in an e-mail May 8, “The new popchips worldwide dating parody featuring four characters was created to provoke a few laughs and was never intended to stereotype or offend anyone. At popchips we embrace all types of shapes, flavors and colors, and appreciate all snackers, no matter their race or ethnicity. We hope people can enjoy this in the spirit it was intended.”
But a maelstrom of differing opinions has swirled about the Internet in response to the ad.
“Asians and Indians are the new ‘clownable’ minorities. D***less, docile, people who have accents and fix computers,” notes comedian Hasan Minhaj in an explicit online video commentary.
African American standup comic W. Kamau Bell, who often comments on race in his act, said that racist stereotypes can be funny, if performed from a standpoint of respect. But “When Ashton Kutcher pretends to imitate some amorphous Indian man in the popchips commercial, it is clear to me and to many, many, many others that he doesn’t like that man, he doesn’t respect that man, and he doesn’t know that man — most likely because that man does not exist. And worst of all, he obviously spent all of no seconds prepping the accent.”
The Brooklyn hip-hop band Das Racist, which features two South Asians in its lineup, tweeted: “So, a dude who pimps sex trafficking awareness @aplusk to revive a sagging career also plays brownface characters for @popchips #america.”
The popular blog Uber Desi features this comment from blogger Santosh: “As an Indian man with brown skin and an Indian accent, who gets ribbed on it every now and then, it does sting a little to view these mock portrayals on TV.”
Ankita Raj, blogging on Slate, says, “One would have thought that the arrival of [Aziz] Ansari and company on primetime meant that incidents like the popchips ad were a thing of the past.”
Tech blogger Anil Dash wrote, “I can’t imagine I have to explain this to anyone in 2012, but if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 so they can do a bad ‘funny’ accent in order to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course. Make some different decisions.”
But Russell Peters, the most successful Indian origin standup comic working today, takes another tack in a recent tweet. “For the record, the Ashton Kutcher ‘Controversy’ is NOT a big deal!! Those Metro PCS commercials are WAAAY more insulting to Indian people!” Peters said.
TV and film star Aziz Ansari — who is now a spokesperson for American Express — mentioned the controversy in his recent tweet, managing to put in a plug for his sponsor without taking sides. “In light of the Ashton Kutcher popchips scandal, I feel obliged to confess that in my AmEx spots I am also wearing brown face,” he tweeted to his 1.7 million followers.
Indian American actress Puja Mohindra took the bold step of putting out her own dating parody video on YouTube titled “To Ashton Kutcher, Love Kimmy Patel.” In the video, she offers him tips on how to make fun of Indian people. “Number one: You must be Indian,” she says. (Check out her “S*** White Girls Say to Indian Girls,” too).
Neither Mindy Kaling (who costarred with Kutcher in the 2011 comedy “No Strings Attached”) nor Kal Penn (who costarred with Kutcher in 2005’s “A Lot Like Love”) has commented publicly on the issue.
Popchips has pulled the “Raj” segment of the dating-themed ad from its Web site, and Kutcher, for his part, has neither apologized nor commented.
Kutcher himself contributed to the look and script of the $1.5 million campaign, which was developed by popchips, shot by the Zambezi ad agency, and promoted by Alison Brod PR.
Popchips CEO Keith Belling blogged: “We did not intend to offend anyone. I take full responsibility and apologize to anyone we offended.”
But the last word shall go to the news satire site The Onion, which posted a parody survey about the scandal and got this reply: “I, for one, am glad popchips decided to go with an American actor instead of outsourcing the job to an actual Indian.”