Salesgenie apologizes to Chinese, ignores Indians

The New York Times reports that the Chinese panda ad has been withdrawn, to the accompaniment of a classic non-apology apology.

Published February 7, 2008 5:47PM (EST)

Stuart Elliot covers the advertising beat for the New York Times. Yet somehow, astoundingly, he managed to write an entire feature on the abysmal Salesgenie Super Bowl ad controversy, without once mentioning the thesis that the Chinese- and Indian-stereotyping ads were purposely meant to be awful.

It's not as if such a notion can be easily dismissed as a deranged conspiracy theory, concocted by bloggers desperate to understand why anyone would pay $5 million to insult the combined populations of China and India. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, "a Salesgenie exec boasted that his commercials were intentionally bad." Do even a cursory Google search on the author of the ads, Vin Gupta, CEO of InfoUSA, Salesgenie's corporate parent, and you will find numerous trade press articles published before the Super Bowl, with headlines like " Wears 'Super Bowl Worst' Crown With Pride."

Bad publicity was the goal:

Vin Gupta, founder and chairman of, conceptualized and wrote copy for the ads himself. While other brands battle for accolades, isn't phased by boos and jeers from the audience. "It was judged to be the best by the real pros," says Gupta. "Our ad was one of the few to feature a call-to-action, driving more than 25,000 people to the Web site. If it positively impacts business like it did last year, we'd be thrilled to be the worst again."

In the New York Times Elliot does get two quotes from Gupta that are well worth highlighting, however.

Still, "if I offended anybody," Mr. Gupta said, "believe me, I apologize."

Bzzzzt! Non-apology apology alert. Just say you're sorry, Mr. Gupta -- "sorry if" is a weasel formulation. (For a complete analysis of the semiotics of non-apologies, hie yourself over to Susan McCarthy's magnificent treatment of the subject, "How to Say You're Sorry: A Refresher Course."

Elliot also reports that Gupta has ordered the Chinese panda Salesgenie commercial withdrawn. But:

Mr. Gupta said he planned to keep running the other Salesgenie commercial, featuring an animated salesman named Ramesh who speaks with an Indian or other South Asian accent.

The reason, Mr. Gupta said, was that "more people seem upset about the pandas than Ramesh."

There is probably an interesting dissertation waiting to be written about the relative cultural potency of offended Chinese sentiments versus offended Indian sentiments here in the early 21st century. Could it be because Chinese stereotyping has a much longer history in the United States than anti-Indian stereotyping, and thus the culture as a whole is hyper-sensitized? Or is this attributable to "The Simpsons" syndrome -- 20 years of a cartoon character featuring an accent similar to that featured in the Salesgenie ad has desensitized television audiences? Or can it be attributed to relative global economic power? India is coming on strong, but so far, isn't in China's league.

Then again, wait 'til next year.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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