August 31, 1999 1:50 PM PDT

Vodka maker clips ad after community criticism

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Bowing to pressure from the largest Asian American online community, Skyy Spirits is pulling a national advertisement that many members called offensive and degrading to Asian American women.

Skyy advertisement The ad, one of five advertisements included in the San Francisco-based company's latest "Skyy Cinema" outdoor and print campaign, was the subject of heated debate this month on AsianAvenue.com, a community Web site with about 370,000 members. The firestorm caused Skyy to reconsider the ad, which AsianAvenue members say illustrates the potential power Web communities have to unite behind a common cause.

The ad in question depicts a young Asian woman--clad in a traditional Mandarin dress--kneeling over a Caucasian woman who is lying on her stomach, wearing only a towel. Wearing chopsticks in her hair, the Asian woman is pouring the woman a Skyy vodka drink.

"It just perpetuates all the stereotypes of Asian Americans [as subservient]," said Calvin Wong, executive director of marketing at New York-based Community Connect, the parent company of AsianAvenue. "[Skyy] is a big company where ignorance is no excuse, and the power of the Web enabled us to respond very quickly."

Called "Inner Peace," the ad drew about 300 postings to AsianAvenue's politics forum, many of them protests.Throughout the past ten days, women and men--ranging from an Asian American author to a Harvard professor--posted messages on the AsianAvenue Web site, with one New York bar owner vowing to stop carrying Skyy's product. Another member lamented that Asians in ads are typically transformed into "spies and hookers."

The notes were forwarded to Skyy, the nation's third-largest vodka maker, which sent a letter to AsianAvenue last Thursday. In the letter, Skyy stated its intent to stop running the ad, according to Arul Sundaram, a business development associate at Community Connect, a company that creates online community sites.

In an interview today with CNET News.com, Skyy spokeswoman Sue Hearn said the advertisement had been pulled from the campaign, which launched in June in magazines including Vanity Fair, Spin, and Rolling Stone. "We are supportive of the Asian community," Hearn said.

The decision to pull the ad is a turnaround from Skyy's earlier position on the matter--and a coup for AsianAvenue's members, who complain that their community too often is ignored or stereotyped by marketers.

The protest
Earlier this month, Jennifer Kim, an AsianAvenue site editor, posted a copy of the letter she had sent to Skyy, which stated: "Essentially, Skyy believes that the imagery will sell to a public that buys into these stereotypes."

In a response faxed to Kim on August 6 and posted on the AsianAvenue site, Skyy's marketing director, Teresa Zepeda, said the ad was not meant to offend the Asian community.

"The intention was to show a woman having a moment with Skyy," she wrote. "A young woman traveling through Asia, who stopped in a peaceful spa to receive a massage in the native tradition of that culture. Thus, the person serving the drink is Asian, i.e., indigenous to the country. Your interpretation of racial stereotyping is distressing."

AdWeek, an industry magazine, described the campaign as "brash and spicy" in a review. Even several AsianAvenue members posting on the site said they liked the Inner Peace ad, with one stating: "I really think people need to relax. I'm an avid fashion photographer, and I appreciate the picture for what it is."

Community Connect's Wong said he also debated whether the advertisement was harmless, though in the end it was the Web community that decided on the matter.

"The lesson isn't that they put out a bad ad," Wong said. "The lesson is that a bunch of people of a similar background discussed how they felt about this ad and how they responded to it. The power of the Web is in polling public opinion as you couldn't do otherwise.

"Will this send a message? Absolutely. I think it will be positive," Wong added.

 

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