Photo: flickr/Krista

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In May 2014, the Quebec-based restaurant chain St-Hubert launched a TV commercial that sparked outrage from members of Quebec’s Chinese community. The commercial, which appeared regularly on English and French language television during the Stanley Cup playoffs, was in promotion of a new rotisserie chicken deal. It depicted owners of a Chinese restaurant standing in their empty dining room complaining angrily (with English and French subtitles) about the lack of business. The camera then pans to a print ad for the St-Hubert deal, and the restaurant owner who angrily smashes a fortune cookie while his wife sullenly reads the crushed cookie’s fortune, “At least it’s for a limited time.”

For those not familiar with the chain, St-Hubert first opened its restaurants in 1951 and by the 1970s had become a popular eatery across Quebec. It is also best known for its rotisserie chicken.

After the commercial aired, many people contacted the company on social media to complain about its reinforcement of racial stereotypes about Chinese-Canadians as only restaurant owners, fortune cookie eaters and non-French speaking. CBC subsequently ran a cover story on Cathy Wong, a Plateau-Mont-Royal resident of Montreal who sent a letter to St-Hubert complaining about the commercial’s racist depiction.

According to the The Globe and Mail‘s reporting, Lyne Chayer, St-Hubert’s Vice-President of marketing defended the commercial stating, “At no point did we want to offend anybody and any culture, of course. The only message is about pricing. I think the message is clear. The real idea of the ad is that, no matter if you are a Chinese restaurant or whatever, St-Hubert has such aggressive pricing. And we’re sorry for the competition.”

Not only did the company dismiss the ad’s latent racism, it went even further by describing the commercial’s setting as “typical” of Chinese restaurants and the smashing of the fortune cookie a “funny part of the storytelling.”

In reality, Chinese restaurants come in all sizes and decors, and fortune cookies are not even a part of Chinese culture. Fortune cookies were created in the early 20th Century in California by a Chinese or Japanese American — historians still debate the origins of the after dinner treat.

Just as we thought St-Hubert had learned a lesson about the use of stereotypes, not only because of public outcry from individuals, but also from organizations like the Chinese Canadian National Council and the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, which launched a formal complaint against the company, another ethnic commercial hit the airwaves.

In June, the Quebec-based company launched another TV commercial in which a male Italian restaurant owner named Gino is depicted making pizza in an empty restaurant. As he laments about the lack of customers, the camera pans to an elderly grandmother and then to his mother who tells her son in Italian (with subtitles) that the lack of customers is not his fault, yet another St-Hubert rotisserie chicken deal was to blame for their lack of business.

Will the racist stereotype depicted in this commercial spark outrage within the Italian-Canadian community? Is St-Hubert going to defend itself again? And furthermore, why should these depictions be offensive to only the groups depicted?

We are not Chinese or Italian and we are outraged by these commercials. But given the reality of Canada’s media industry, should we be surprised that TV advertising continues to rely on these representations?

In a May 2014 study, sociologists at the University of Toronto found an “entrenched” racial bias in TV commercials in Canada. The study, “Canadian Television Advertising Delivers Scripts for Racial Bias,” which appeared in the Canadian Review of Sociology was written Shyon Baumann and Loretta Ho, who spent 18 months examining meanings attached to race in prime-time food and dining commercials on CBC, CTV and Global TV.

Their results revealed a discrepancy between the way ethnic groups are characterized and people’s actual day-to-day lives. Specifically, the study noted that white characters are frequently associated with nostalgia, a connection to nature, the nuclear family and a more highbrow, high-status lifestyle. African-Canadians are more frequently shown in blue collar positions, and Asian-Canadians are often stereotyped as “technocrats,” high achievers with little emotional range.

St-Hubert’s commercial is not innocent or “fun” or merely about a chicken special. It is reflective of the wider issue of a lack of racial and ethnic diversity on Canadian television.

In an article, Amira Elghawaby asked the question, “Why are visible minorities invisible in Canadian media?” Part of the problem may lay in the concentration of Canada’s media industry.

In 2012 a report from Boston-based Analysis Group cited in The Huffington Post found that Canada has the most concentrated TV industry ownership of any G8 country, and that 81.4 per cent of the value of Canada’s TV distribution (cable and satellite) market is controlled by the same companies that create content, such as broadcasters and production companies.

Thus, when we complain about one commercial we miss an opportunity to critique and challenge the industry as a whole. St-Hubert is a byproduct of a larger issue. Until we, as citizens and consumers, call upon the broadcasters, advertisers and production companies to do more to reflect the Canadian experience as we live it in our day-to-day lives, the racial stereotyping in TV commercials will continue to be produced because the gatekeepers are not being asked to be accountable for narrow and reductive representations that are far from “innocent.”

Cheryl Thompson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University. She will defend her dissertation, “Race and Beauty in Canada: Print Culture, Retail and the Transnational Flow of Products, Images, and Ideologies” in fall 2014.  

Lalai Manjikian holds a PhD in Communication Studies from McGill University (2013). She currently teaches in the Humanities department at Vanier College in Montreal. Lalai writes and teaches in the areas of human migration, refugee social exclusion and inclusion, the ethics of migration, media and migration, intercultural communication, and diaspora studies.

Photo: flickr/Krista