The Racist Super Bowl Commercial You Might Have Missed

By Arturo R. García

A number of ads during the Super Bowl Sunday night focused on the good things about Detroit and the auto industry. But the worst commercial of the day, aimed at Michigan voters, didn’t make the national airwaves.

The ad shown above for Republican state senatorial candidate Peter Hoekstra hinged its attack on incumbent Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) on Orientalism. The actress, playing a “Chinese national,” says:

Thank you, Michigan Senator Debbie Spenditnow. Debbie spend so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spenditnow.

The commercial, slated to run for two weeks, pointed viewers to its own website, of course, covered in a matching decor, with the video displayed front-and-center. The only mention of any of Stabenow’s policies comes at the very bottom of the page.

This marks the second major political ad in little more than a year to use xenophobia as a primary tactic, after Citizens Against Government Waste’s “Chinese Professor” spot from October 2010:

Hoekstra defended his commercial in an interview with WMMT-TV before the game, saying, “If it’s got their attention we must be doing something right.”

Unfortunately for Hoekstra, it’s getting the wrong kind of attention, too: not only is the ad getting rightly pilloried in media circles, but at least one in-state consultant within his own party, Nick De Leeuw, has criticized the spot, saying, “Stabenow has got to go. But shame on Pete Hoekstra for that appalling new advertisement. Racism and xenophobia aren’t any way to get things done.”

Funny thing, though: even though Hoekstra’s ad accuses Stabenow of letting jobs and money leave their home state, as Politico reports, the commercial wasn’t even filmed in Michigan; it was made in California, something state Democratic party chair Mark Brewer quickly seized upon, calling it “nothing more than a hypocritical attempt at a Hollywood-style makeover.

“The fact is, Pete spends a lot,” Brewer said. “Hoekstra voted for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout and voted for trillions more in deficit spending before quitting Congress to get rich at a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. Hoekstra is using the big game to play games with Michigan voters, covering up his real record on deficit spending and rigging the rules for the big money insiders he serves.”

  • Kyasa

    Jingoism is defined as: The argument that attempts to persuade by calling on one’s community spirit, specifically on ones love of country. Alternatively, the argument may attempt to refute a position by calling it treasonous or unpatriotic. …Of course this ilk of “yellow dog ” red baiting harkens back to the nadirial American Inquisition called McCarthyism. A perfidiously pernicious propaganda that is rooted in an irrational fear of Chinese>>Xenophobia on Steroids. It looks like a public return to the Good Ole Days of Lack of American Values like the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, the Yellow Peril and Blacks as the Boogie Man.

  • Grapestomper62

    Holy shit, that’s ignorant.

  • Eva

    I am more offended at the childish tone of this commercial.  “I’m Pete Spend it Not?”  What are we in nursery school? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Song/100001582801973 Tiffany Song

    I disagree with putting the responsibility to fight marginalization on the shoulders of any individual who is being marginalized.

    If a black person in the South during civil rights did not attend marches, did not participate in rallies, because they were working jobs, enjoying the company of their family, *anything*, I do not believe that person should be questioned or insulted.  (Not that I’m trying to equate the two situations, but situation is analogous.)

    An individual should not be obligated to sacrifice themselves to the cause. If she rejected this role and made a statement about it, I would applaud her. But I won’t condemn her for accepting it. I don’t know her situation, and I cannot fault her for trying to live in the world we live in. Trying to change that world is good, but should not be required.

    The impulse I have seen from a lot of commentators here and in other places to attack this woman is very upsetting to me. I’ve seen her called horrible, nasty things, seen people digging around, trying to find her name, her history, et cetera.  That is incredibly alarming to me.

    • Anonymous

      I do not believe the actress is solely to blame for this ad or that those who spearheaded it’s creation should not receive the brunt of our displeasure. But I don’t think those who are aiding and abetting racism and other prejudices against their own group or other disenfranchised groups are somehow let off the hook from their role because they exist within oppressive systems.

      I don’t think your civil rights example is analogous to this situation. Your example involved people not engaging with a movement, versus someone actively engaging in or participating in a demeaning act. I don’t think the actress choosing to not participate in this ad is equivalent to “sacrificing themselves to the cause”. I don’t think she should be harassed or belittled, but sometimes ethics needs to come into play and people have to question whether their price tag for their dignity is too low. Perhaps I am being self-righteous, but can’t we demand more from people?

      When I see some shit like the following video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWD15oRu3YM ) I do not think it is off base to question the participants in the video.

      • ericklee

        Damn straight!

  • Purpleduck84

    The actress is apparently Chinese-American, so, yes, she is Chinese.

    I think what you mean is that she doesn’t SOUND as though she’s from China (i.e. a Chinese national), which I agree with. What I was struck by was the fact that it was so dang obvious that the woman actually hailed from an English-speaking country. Apparently the people who dreamed up the ad decided to have her speak broken English in an… American accent? What sense does that make? People can and do speak fluent English with their native accent, but I’ve never seen the reverse. (Of course, my mistake is looking for sense in this sort of garbage.)

    • Anonymous

      Well, that’s not what I meant…I meant she didn’t look like Chinese to me and I say that as someone who realizes that all Asian people don’t look alike, nor do all Chinese people look alike, so for example I’d be surprised if someone told me she was Han.  

      I’m black, but I don’t look like any of  the people that I know from various African countries either.  So no one is going to mistake me for a Nigerian, Ghanaian, South African, etc.  

      So I didn’t need correcting but thought she looked like she was Vietnamese or Cambodian, and I’ve known people who were not properly recognized by people of their own ethnicity for perhaps the same reason that I’m not recognizing her as Chinese, on top of the fact that the landscape looks wrong.  She reminds me of someone I knew from college who was in fact Cambodian…

      • Purpleduck84

        Well, you did mention her accent, which is why I thought you were talking about how she sounded.  

        Speaking of which, I’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie so I’m not an authority on those. But I’m assuming he speaks with some sort of stereotypically exaggerated Asian accent (because that seems to be the general case with that sort of thing). And that’s the thing with the woman in this commercial. She DOESN’T speak with an Asian accent. She speaks with a pretty much perfect American accent. I’m Asian-American, born and raised in California, and she talks the way I talk. How does Charlie Chan figure into it?

        I still don’t see how she doesn’t “look” Chinese. I wouldn’t necessarily automatically peg her as being Chinese right off the bat, but I don’t find it hard to believe that she’d be Chinese either. I’ll grant that the setting/backdrop didn’t really evoke China for me, though.

  • Kat

    I just stared at the screen in disbelief…

  • Anonymous

    Hoekstra is a hypocritical gasbag, but that is trumped by appealing to racism.  Once the racist caricatures come out, most voters will forget about the issues. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Myaim-Istrue/100003147014863 Myaim Istrue

    This is actually shocking to me (and I thought I’d given up being shocked a LONG time ago)…

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  • Deb

    Wow. Their actress doesnt even have a chinese accent, despite the attempt at “chinglish” grammar.

  • Octaboy

    Looks like a lame rip off a Sundance Short Film called Ha Ha Ha America. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmANxHJ6s9M

  • ShimTaylor in Austin

    This ad is disgusting, but where is our outrage at the actress who willingly participated

    I’m sick of actors of color doing horrible stereotypical roles in commercial, television, movies and print and not having their feet held to the fire

    If the role an actor takes hurts POC by perpetuating a stereotype then the actor has done nothing but further their own self interests over the interests of the broader society

    If actors build their career playing pimps, mammies, dragon ladies, et al, they should be called out. Rarely are these stereotypical roles written by POC ( with the exception of Tyler Perry’s minstrel shows)

    The famous Hattie McDaniel quote is what I assume all actors of color who portray harmful caricatures have internalized and  recite. But the money they make isn’t a salve for the harm they do to all People of Color

    “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week actually being one!”

    • Notebook

      As someone who is trying to accept his own “internalized” hatred, I find that particular quote a bit disingenuous. I mean, I’m not going to try to pretend I know the reasoning why this actress decided to take this job, but I’m not going to exactly fault someone for taking a job that pays several thousand over one that doesn’t pay even a quarter of that, even if it means playing a character that is a caricature.

      This doesn’t mean I condone when I see someone play a role that is a stereotype, but maybe they really needed that money. Not all of us have the advantage to think about “their own” when they can barely support themselves. Just because someone has the same skin color or the same facial features  or even come from a similar background like you, doesn’t mean that they’ll share the same values as you or they’ll be more loyal to you than someone who is different in any regard. This is something that I’ve had to learn the hard way over the years, and it’s really something that I struggle with. I can’t very well claim whether or not it’s a good or bad thing, but it is a very human thing. And I think the only way we’ll begin to see less internalized hatred for minorities is if we teach that not all minorities think alike and have their own reasoning behind the decisions they make.

      There’s no point trying to tell people how they should feel if they themselves really want to feel that way.

      Also, sometimes these actors and actresses don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into. Although it’s hard to argue this with Hoekstra ad, a lot of the extras in the Chinese Professor ad didn’t know what it was going to be made for. Whether or not individuals should really look into their roles more before they take them on, that’s something for them to decide. Some may have refused to do it, some may have needed the extra money, and some may just not have cared either way.

    • hi-c

      I’m saving my outrage for the director, the writer, the producer, the creative designer, the campaign manager, the candidate, and the financial backers. The most I can muster up for the actress is a vague sense of sadness.

    • moe

       The harm “they” do? What about an industry that won’t let actors of color be human beings? They have to have careers somehow, so they do the roles they get in the hope of getting the ones they want. http://www.schemamag.ca/archive2/2011/10/living_life_on_the_silver_scre.php

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Song/100001582801973 Tiffany Song

      It isn’t any one person’s responsibility to bear the burden of societal change.

      Taking a job, reading copy, the message isn’t that big of a deal, to me. There’s plenty of blame to lay at the feet of the people who produced the ad and decided to push the sentiments in it, why go the extra mile and attempt to persecute the East Asian woman who took the role?

      Sorry, if you’re so desperate for a target that she is the one you get angry with, then you have too much time, too much outrage, and not enough sense.

    • dissembly

      I think Notebook covered pretty much everything.

      I would only ad, if she didn’t take the money, they would have gone to the next person. People don’t have the power to stand up against things like this on some purely individualistic level. You expect the actress in the ad to use her life and her job prospects to make a political point that nobody outside of the casting director will ever hear about.

      It’s not just “asking too much” – it’s plain ineffective.

      For actors to be in the kind of position to make that sort of stand, they need a strong union backing them up. If a group decided to mount a campaign in the Screen Actors Guild, have the democratic support of all the other actors who might otherwise have taken her job in her place, and present a united front of actors refusing to take these roles, THEN you can be effective. THEN you can accuse an actor who refuses to join in of being a scab of some kind. THEN you can get on your high horse.

      Until that happens, you need to leave that lady alone, and have some cognizance of the position she’s in.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=545398759 Konrad Aderer

      As an Asian American I definitely find this offensive, but I’m not so quick to condemn the person at the bottom of the economic food chain, namely the actor in this ad, at least not before hearing her point of view. Acting is a tough business. Maybe she felt she was supporting the U.S. and going against the racist trope of the “devious” Chinese American who supports China (see: Wen Ho Lee case). But I’d be very interested what the actress’ thoughts are about taking the job and if her feelings have changed in light of the controversy. I think it’d be great if racialicious or some appropriate blog could find her & interview her. 

    • Jinge

       I hope you’re prepared to hold Viola Davis accountable as well for her modern day mammy role in The Help.