Eat my tofu? Maybe not!

As ads go pan-national and global, they do more than criss-cross borders. There are also a lot of cultural biases, nuances, language idiosyncracies and sensibilities that brand communications counter along the way. And it is in surprising ways that seemingly innocuous communications come back to bite the brands. 

Not too long ago, the humble tinda (apple gourd) whipped up national debates on keeping brand communication relevant in a multi-lingual ecosystem. Uber Eats was trolled quite a lot for bringing up ‘Tinda’ in their ad, which, as many on social media pointed out, is as a vegetable that people outside the North India belt might not be familiar with.

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Now Ikea has broken a cultural taboo with its digital ad targeted at the Hong Kong market. When it mentioned “Eat my tofu” in the ad, the Swedish company did not realise that it meant something completely different in Cantonese slang. 

The ad, in Chinese Cantonese language said, “You can eat my tofu whenever you like”, and with an attached note that said, “You can eat my tofu, but please be gentle.” In Cantonese slang ‘eating someone’s tofu’ means taking sexual advantage of women verbally or physically. 

Following the appearance of the ad, Gender and Sexual Justice, a feminist activist group, demanded that the offending ad be taken down. They also criticised the sexual connotation of the ad on Facebook. 

The group said, “[The ad] generates the image of a woman wishing for her body to be eaten like tofu. The public gets what it means and expresses their urge to “eat someone’s tofu”. The sexual connotation was released and it attracts responses that reinforce the pre-existing gender-sexual relation. The ice-cream ad once again treats woman’s body as an object [desires] to be taken advantage of [by man].” 

For a change, Ikea has been receiving a lot of support on social media, with many criticizing Gender and Sexual Justice for reading too deep into the ad and ruining the joke. 

Ikea, while refusing to take down the ad, maintained, “We have been working hard to communicate in a playful yet positive manner, so our customers may better understand our offers. The latest Tofu-flavoured Sundae promotional post “speaks” for itself to emphasise the silky taste.” 

Troubled by this, on May 9, the group filed an official complaint to the Equal Opportunity Commission. The joint letter said, “While the popular furniture brand regards sexual harassment as a joke in its promotional materials, it encourages people not to regard sexual harassment as a serious problem, creating a hostile environment and making it harder for the victims to speak up.” 

With brands increasing their global presence, there are bound to be more such instances of brand communication “lost in translation” and terrible faux-paus. The ad and marketing teams would do well to also increase their awareness about the local sensibilities of the regions where they are targetting their communication, regardless of which part of the globe they are releasing the ad in. That would be one more knowledge point to factor in along with the TG, market opportunities, buying potential, supply-demand gap, retail strategy, et al.


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