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GM pulls Twenties-themed ad featuring racist lyrics

A still from a time-travel-themed ad for GM’s Chevrolet Trax. GM has withdrawn the ad after complaints that a 1938 song in the ad features racist lyrics.

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Romanticism for all things retro may have served the makers of hit TV shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire well. But advertisers are learning they must tread carefully when taking a trip down memory lane.

General Motors Co. has apologized after an ad for the Chevrolet Trax, which has been in heavy rotation in Canada, attracted negative attention for racist lyrics in the music it used.

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The ad features a Midnight in Paris –style plot in which a man time travels when he is picked up by new friends from another era. In the commercial, the man is dressed in Twenties or Thirties-style attire and is wonderstruck by the lifestyle of modern women in the SUV. To complement the retro tone, the company used a remix of a 1938 song, " Oriental Swing." The new version, "Booty Swing," still includes lyrics that refer to China as "the land of Fu Manchu" where the girls dance while saying "Ching ching chop suey, swing some more."

The ad aired on TV only in Canada. On April 23, it was pulled from Canadian airwaves and edited so that the lyrics are no longer included. However, on Wednesday the ad was pulled off the air entirely. It also appeared on some of Chevrolet's European websites, but has been removed.

"GM has stopped airing a commercial for the Chevrolet Trax due to the objectionable lyrics of a song used in the spot's soundtrack," the company said in an emailed statement. "We apologize for the use of inappropriate content."

Fu Manchu, a fictional Chinese master criminal based on a series of novels from the early 20th century, has appeared in film, television, radio, and comic books. The character has been called racist in its proliferation of the notion of "yellow peril," or the perceived threat of Asians to the west. In her book on the subject, Jenny Clegg wrote that the initial series of books, published in 1912, "warned of Asian hordes on the verge of sweeping through Europe, threatening an overthrow of Western civilisation."

The South China Morning Post initially reported on the commercial, with a headline labelling the commercial racist. The ad was not aired in China.

GM added that it is reviewing its advertising approval process "to ensure this does not happen again in the future."

It is an awkward blunder for GM, which is looking to the Chinese market for a large portion of its future growth. The company has targeted a sales increase of 75 per cent in the country by 2015.

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Auto makers have been under increased scrutiny recently for a few questionable advertising decisions. Last week, Hyundai found itself in the spotlight for an ad that used a plot involving suicide, and in March, Ford Motor Co. apologized for a series of ads from India that were posted online, one of which featured the Kardashian sisters bound and gagged in the trunk of its new vehicle.

And it wasn't the only company this week to be criticised for racism in its advertising. PepsiCo decided to pull a commercial for Mountain Dew featuring a badly beaten woman asked to identify her attacker – a goat – in a police lineup. While the perpetrator is an animal, every other person in the lineup was black. (The ad was produced for Pepsi by rapper and co-founder of the group Odd Future, Tyler the Creator.) The goat taunts her from the lineup with such phrases as "better not snitch on a playa." Because of the taunting of the female character, it was also criticized for making light of abuse.

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