3 Ways to Avoid Racist Ads Like Ashton Kutcher's for Popchips

By Barbara Frankel


Diversity management is the key to preventing multicultural missteps like this week’s fiascoa video of Ashton Kutcherin “brown face” portraying an Indian as part of an ad campaign to sell Popchips.

After a hugely negative social-media response, Popchips removed the ad from Facebook, Twitter and its own website. However, unofficial versions of it remain everywhere.

The original ad, which you can watch below, was part of Ashton Kutcher’s series of dating-video spoofs, in which he is portrayed as various characters looking for a date. In one scene, he pretends to be a Bollywood producer named Raj. Kutcher has his face painted brown and a bad sing-song accent. Indian Americans on social media were incensed about the portrayal. For example, Anil Dash even wrote a blog demanding Popchips, Kutcher and Alison Brod PR fix the racist ad campaign.

Kutcher, who owns a minority stake in the privately held Popchips and is its “president of pop culture,” developed the $1.5-million ad campaign with the help of ad agency Zambezi, a Venice, Calif.-based youth-oriented agency as well as Popchips CEO Keith Belling.Kutcher’s previous ad for Popchips, which was featured online in 2011,portrays racial stereotypes against Blacks and Latinos.

Here’s how to avoid similarly embarrassing and potentially costly mistakes, based on our experience examining the diversity-management success and failures of companies applying to The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list over the past 13 years.

Diversity-Management Tip No. 1: Use Your Resource Groups as Focus Groups

As Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, No. 13 in the DiversityInc Top 50, demonstrated at DiversityInc’s first Innovation Fest! in February, resource groups understand their communities and what works and what’s offensive. Novartis saved more than $1 million in marketing research by asking its motivated resource-group employees to vet its materials.

Our diversity web seminar on resource groups, featuring Procter & Gamble, No. 5 in the DiversityInc Top 50, and American Express, No. 14, showed exactly how valuable their resource groups were to examining marketplace ideas, including ad campaigns. American Express, which has 16 groups, used its Latino and Asian groups to develop holiday cards that were culturally competent and brought in significant revenue.

Membership in resource groups of DiversityInc Top 50 Companies has increased dramatically in recent years because these groups are proving their value to the business goals.

Diversity-Management Tip No. 2: Ensure Moral Values Are Clearly Communicated

Organizations with clearly stated values, including diversity & inclusion, are less likely to have ambiguous decisions made on any level. Popchips’ website does not include any statement about values and/or diversity. By contrast, all of the DiversityInc Top 50 companies have mission statements mentioning values and diversity on their corporate websites.

A good example of a company that espouses and lives up to its values is jcpenney (No. 35 in the DiversityInc Top 50). The retailer, and CEO Ron Johnson, stood firmly behind its decision to have Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson, even after a protest from an organization that called itself One Million Moms but really had only about 40,000 followers. Read our coverage of this news in Lessons on Values From Ellen & JCPenney.

For its Mother’s Day catalog, jcpenney is featuring a lesbian couple (one of whom is an actual employee) to make the point that it is an inclusive company. View this photo on Huffington Post.

For more on clarity of values, read Ask the White Guy: Decision Making, Clarity of Values & What to Do When It Goes Horribly Wrong.

Diversity-Management Tip No. 3: Make Sure Apologies Come From the Top

In this case, Popchips gets some credit. While CEO Keith Belling was part of the team that came up with the ad, he has personally apologized for it and seems to get the point.

On Popchips’ “what’s poppin'” blog, Belling issued this apology: “We received a lot of feedback about the dating campaign parody we launched today and appreciate everyone who took the time to share their point of view. Our team worked hard to create a light-hearted parody featuring a variety of characters that was meant to provide a few laughs. We did not intend to offend anyone. I take full responsibility and apologize to anyone we offended.”

CEO commitment is a cornerstone of good diversity management. That also means accepting the responsibility for failures, including multicultural missteps. CEOs who have done this over the years have seen their companies regain credibility.

For more companies’ multicultural missteps, read ‘I’m Puerto RicanI’d Be Great at Selling Drugs’; ‘Not Married She Must Be a Lesbian’ and Lowe’s Muslim Publicity Gaffe Serves as Case Study of What Not to Do.

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