Ashton Kutcher is no stranger to online controversy. The serial tweeter with close to 11 million followers found trouble earlier this year after seemingly defending ousted college football coach Joe Paterno.
But for snack maker Popchips, online scrutiny is new, which might explain the company’s mixed signals after an uproar over a video spot featuring a Kutcher in brownface doing an impression of a Bollywood producer.
The Internet-only campaign, "World Wide Lovers Dating Service," also has Kutcher playing a Southern biker named Swordfish, a British stoner named Nigel and a fashionista who resembles Karl Lagerfeld. But the Indian character named Raj created the stir, perhaps as much for the dialogue as his appearance: "I'm Raj, I'm a Bollywood producer. I'm looking for the most delicious thing on the planet, like Kardashian hot ... I would give that dog a bone," Kutcher says in the ad.
Kutcher’s caricature drew criticism from many, including blogger Anil Dash and hip-hop group Das Racist, which tweeted: "Hey @aplusk, what's with the racist brownface video you talentless, pretending to care about sex trafficking piece of s--t?"
Meanwhile, Popchips sent mixed messages in response to the outcry. Its first response was to defend the ad campaign. "The new Popchips worldwide dating video and ad campaign featuring four characters was created to provoke a few laughs and was never intended to stereotype or offend anyone," said a spokesperson, who added, “We hope people can enjoy this in the spirit it was intended."
Then Dash, who likes Popchips and Kutcher, wrote a blog post on Wednesday stating that he’d spoken to Popchips founder Keith Belling, whom he said was “sincere and contrite as he offered a thoughtful, apologetic response.” Popchips has since pulled the ad.
Does giving two completely different responses to a controversy do a brand more harm than good? Perhaps Popchips should have stuck with its first statement defending the video, and let the chips fall where they may.
Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01