General Motors

Is political correctness in the eye of the beholder?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 2:51am

It's tough for big corporations to launch advertising campaigns these days. If they are too tame, no one pays attention. Too edgy, and someone is bound to be offended. Companies run for cover at a whiff of controversy. So General Motors executives who approved politically incorrect lyrics in a worldwide marketing campaign for the carmaker's new Chevrolet Trax SUV had to pull it from distribution.

The company has received numerous complaints since it was broadcast in Canada. Some have found the lyrics racist against Chinese. Others think those who complain are just overly sensitive.

Certainly there was nothing wrong with the visuals, which featured beautiful models travelling in the new SUV to a party during the swing era.

The music, however, contained lyrics that may offend some people:

Now, in the land of Fu Manchu,
The girls all now do the Suzie-Q,
Clap their hands in the centre of the floor
Saying "ching-ching, chop suey, swing some more".

The character of Fu Manchu, originally created for a series of novels by British author Sax Rohmer, came to represent the stereotypical Chinese villain in 1930s American cinema. It's doubtful many people would make the racist connection with this "yellow peril" stereotype these days. But racial sensitivity is in the eye of the beholder.

Over the years, Hong Kong has had its share of commercials featuring racial stereotypes about foreigners and other non-Chinese. So let's not throw the first stone.

In any case, GM's advert is far less offensive than the one launched by Ford Motors for its Figo model in March. The Ford cartoon ad had women bound and gagged in the boot while Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, was in the driver's seat looking back and giving the V sign. Most reasonable people would conclude it had gone too far.

By comparison, the GM ad is more forgivable.