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persuasion notebook

Some customers are upset with a commercial for the St-Hubert restaurant chain.

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

Restaurant chain St-Hubert has upset consumers with a TV commercial some are calling offensive toward the Chinese community.

The ad, which has been playing on television during the Stanley Cup playoffs and which will remain on the air for another week, promotes a limited-time pricing offer in the chain of rotisserie chicken restaurants.

The ad depicts an owner of a Chinese restaurant standing in his empty dining room. In the commercial, which is subtitled, he complains angrily to a woman who appears to be his wife about a sale at St-Hubert.

"You're kidding me," she says, also subtitled, when she sees the price.

The man then angrily smashes a fortune cookie.

"At least it's for a limited time," the wife says, reading the message from the fortune cookie that says "For a limited time."

The commercial ends with a tune in the style of a traditional Chinese string instrument, possibly a zither.

People contacted the company on social media to complain about the commercial, some calling it racist. On Twitter, a user with the name Belle Province called it condescending and stereotypical. "Please remove your offensive commercial that is playing during the playoffs. It is completely unacceptable and astonishing that it has continued to air," Keiko Devaux wrote on the brand's Facebook page. "I think it is racist ... Your marketing department should show Canadian values," Lisie Muggenberg wrote, also on the Facebook page. On YouTube, commenters also weighed in about their disappointment.

While some may see it as debatable whether the ad is racist, it does lean on a number of stereotypes.

Researchers at the University of Toronto recently published a study that found an "entrenched" racial bias in TV commercials: not just were there more white people in ads than people of other ethnicities, but in aggregate they found that non-white people were frequently relegated to more narrow, stereotypical roles. By contrast, white people were given a wide range of characters to play and were associated with privilege far more often.

While some of the individual ads studied were not necessarily racist, the researchers argued, they help to reinforce certain racial stereotypes through their depictions.

The company says it has received complaints.

"At no point did we want to offend anybody and any culture, of course," said Lyne Chayer, St-Hubert's vice-president of marketing. "The only message is about pricing. I think the message is clear. The real idea of the ad is that, no matter if you are a Chinese restaurant or whatever, St-Hubert has such aggressive pricing. And we're sorry for the competition."

The company chose the Chinese restaurant setting because there are many Chinese restaurants in Montreal, Ms. Chayer said.

Its ad agency is DentsuBos.

Ms. Chayer said the company is sorry to have offended people, but does not intend to pull the ad.

"To be honest with you, we didn't think it was stereotyped," Ms. Chayer said. "Yes, we used a Chinese restaurant. Yes it's typical of the Chinese decorations. Smashing the fortune cookie, we thought was the funny part of the storytelling. ... People that are commenting that they didn't like the ad, that's fine. We can't please everybody."

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