Were the Panda Super Bowl Ads Racist?

Now here’s a ready-made blog post for me: mix pandas with Super Bowl advertising, and then throw in societal attitudes about racism, which have been examined more than once here at Today’s Workplace (and are certainly at the heart of Workplace Fairness’s mission). At the intersection of all these things, you have the reaction to SalesGenie.com’s Super Bowl ad. Was it racist? Should it have been pulled and/or never made in the first place? I’m not sure I have any answers, but it certainly provides all of us with an opportunity to constantly examine our own attitudes.

For those who don’t know me, I’m more than a casual panda fan. I volunteer at the National Zoo here in Washington, DC, as an interpreter on the Asia Trail, which means that I talk to Zoo visitors about the exhibit’s seven species and engage them in the Zoo’s conservation and educational mission (although of course, anything I say here should not be attributed to the Zoo or representative of its opinion on anything.) I also have built a website, Pandapoly: All Pandas. All the Time, which is designed to educate and entertain anyone who cares about giant pandas.

So I was most excited when I learned a few days prior to the game that there would be a Super Bowl ad featuring pandas. (See Animation Magazine article.) I learned that it would run in the third quarter, so made sure I was still watching. (Luckily, this Super Bowl turned out to be an exciting game, and close throughout, so there was no chance of me tuning out before then anyway.)

I’m also a reasonably avid NFL fan — and a fan of Super Bowl advertising. Those who have followed Workplace Fairness’ work for a while may remember the report we issued two years ago prior to the Super Bowl: Third and Long: Will Super Bowl Advertisers Make the Big Play for Workplace Fairness? I wrote the report, and it was one of my favorite projects of my professional career, combining my interest in sports, popular culture, and workplace issues. So reviewing the ads was right down my alley.

Here’s the ad:

So what do you think? Is it offensive? funny? memorable?

Enough people were offended by Ling Ling’s Chinese accent that SalesGenie was forced to pull the ad shortly after it aired during the Super Bowl. Vin Gupta, head of SalesGenie’s parent company, issued an apology, saying,

We never thought anyone would be offended. The pandas are Chinese. They don’t speak German. [I]f I offended anybody, believe me, I apologize.

(See New York Times article.)

Just by reading the comments following the Times article, it’s clear there’s a wide diversity of opinion, between Asians and non-Asians, and between people who thought it was harmless vs. those who thought it was extremely racist. There’s obviously no right answer — everyone brings a different perspective to the discussion, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Of course the pandas are going to have a Chinese accent — all pandas originate in China. As Gupta said, they don’t speak German.
  • Is the problem that not all the pandas had a Chinese accent? Or that the pandas spoke in accented broken English? Certainly, their accents did not present any communication barrier — it was possible to understand what they were saying.
  • There are a number of people who speak with accents and/or do not speak gramatically perfect English. When I recently went to Spain, a server made fun of my companion’s poor Spanish accent and demanded he speak in English. Was that insensitive? Or simply a fact? (He did speak Spanish with the accent of a white male from Virginia.)
  • Was Gupta planning to run a controversial ad just to create even more buzz, or did he really think no one would be offended by the ad he personally created? (He is half-Indian, half-Jewish, and says that people often make fun of his accent.)
  • How worked up should we get about a commercial? An animated one, to boot? It’s not like actual people, even actors, were set up to be treated stereotypically. Or actual people were insulted, like in the Don Imus situation.

I’m all for deferring to the sensitivities of minority groups in many occasions where I’m not personally offended, recognizing that I don’t necessarily have the personal experience to shape my sensitivities in the same way. I’m wondering whether in this instance, however, whether the reaction might have been a little overboard.

It’s too bad that it takes a Super Bowl ad to provoke such conversations about race, language, and culture. It’s also too bad that there have been so many instances of people having their manner of speaking ridiculed that such a high level of sensitivity has developed around any use of accented English. And it’s really too bad the pandas won’t be stars for a little while longer.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.