My son asked me recently how to pronounce ‘charade’ for ‘dumb charades’ and I told him what I knew – ‘sha-raad’. He said he thought it was ‘sha-rade’. When my daughter later pronounced it as ‘sha-rade’, he pointed to her pronunciation and laughed, and my wife and I had to admonish him not to make fun of his younger sister’s accent. And if he can teach her the right way, since he now knows it, it’d be more productive.
Imagine making fun of an entire country’s English pronunciation, as a business proposition, in an advertisement.
That’s precisely what Singapore-based Tutoroo did recently. Tutoroo is an online marketplace that connects people with native in-person language tutors near them.
Here’s their ad film that caused online furore on Twitter recently.
I saw it. Cringed. And I thought this was bawdy and tacky enough, and meant for closed-user groups, if at all. I would easily assume this to land up in one of my alumni WhatsApp Groups where people share any/everything in the comfort that it is ‘between close friends’ (who haven’t met in 2 decades, though). I’d cringe even there if at all I open this video.
A language training school/service using miscommunication as a narrative device is fully expected. But how such miscommunication is presented, within what kind of context is important when it comes to advertising.
When Tutoroo posted this on Twitter on January 22, 2020, there was adequate backlash from Singapore and Chinese people online.
What was particularly noteworthy is the way Tutoroo’s corporate handle and its Founder, Nicolas Vanhove, dealt with the feedback.
They (assuming that they are the same given the way they handled the feedback on Twitter and even used the same thread on Twitter, interchangeably) had 3 main points:
1 – that this is an old video that they had shared on Facebook in 2019 and everyone loved it there. So they don’t really understand what the hoohaa is now, on Twitter.
2 – that this is called ‘second degré’ humor in French. (‘humour au second degré’ in French is roughly the equivalent of ‘sarcasm’).
3 – that they make fun of all nationalities (primarily for their English pronunciation, if you see their other videos).
Now, I understand the backlash. It’s obvious since it mixes 3 taboo topics in one single video – race, sexism and language. A lot of people have pointed out why this video seems offending and they have articulated it quite well.
But Tutoroo, besides using factual counter-points, also showcased an abundance of belligerence in their replies. That, understandably, did not go well either. This is literally akin to having a verbal sparring with everyone who has a point of view. The line of reasoning used by Tutoroo included: ‘travel more’, laugh more’, ‘if you didn’t like this, unfollow us’, ‘don’t see our video’ and so on.
There are brands that use this tone and get away with it in spectacular fashion. This is mainly because they use that tone consistently over a period of time and make it their brand’s central appeal (coming on the back of really good quality). Take a look at dbrand, for instance: Can your brand swear and generally be abrasive on Twitter? This brand does, successfully!
Tutoroo doesn’t have that tone, or at least doesn’t have it with any consistency. Its abrasive tone seems strictly in response to criticism only.
Tutoroo also pointed out that they have made fun of other nationalities’ English accent too, in the past.
In a video they have shared earlier on Facebook, another organization (Multilangues, a language school for professionals) is the brand shown in a video where a French person talks to an Indian customer support executive and the conversation goes haywire because the Indian could not understand the French accent (why they couldn’t chat by typing is beyond me, though).
In yet another video, another French person is ridiculed all through for his English accent during an interview – and this video gets into the innuendos too, like the original offending video at the beginning of this post.
Now, when Tutoroo shared the original offending video on Facebook last year (and they have shared it many times, with middling engagement, except once), it is not as if there were no negative views at all. There was a lot of one-word feedback that indicates that this was not acceptable. It wasn’t as adequately articulated as it was on Twitter. But I presume Tutoroo decided to ignore that feedback and assume that it was unanimously liked by a majority.
Tutoroo even had a minor altercation in October 2019 over a Japanese post where a native Japanese speaker pointed to something unpleasant in their attempt at humor.
Language is a dicey topic in many cultures – they are an intrinsic part of many cultures, in fact. Making fun of languages is, hence, even dicier. Making fun of accents is usually a juvenile form of humor. But it is used as a tool by many stand-up comedians, though always in the context of a whole lot more offending things they say as a severe exaggeration of all those things.
That context is perhaps completely missing in Tutoroo’s attempts. It is not our WhatsApp contact, neither is it a stand-up comic trying to humor us. Tutoroo is actually trying to sell us a service that depends on people to sign up as either tutors or as students. Offending one set of people for the way they speak English doesn’t seem to be the best way to endear the brand in the minds of people.
Language is also part of a power equation. The set of people who are needier to get their work done may put in more effort to learn the language of the other group so that they assume that their efforts would impress them and the work gets done.
But all this could still be put under perspectives. What is not a perspective is the way Tutoroo is putting down people who differ with its WhatsApp-style sense of humor, on Twitter. Tutoroo is perhaps taking umbrage in the presumption that a ‘majority’ do like their video (going by their earlier Facebook efforts) and that this Twitter outrage is simply a storm in a teacup. Unfortunately, unlike Facebook, which is a walled-garden, Twitter is completely open and appears in Google search results. Twitter is also the go-to platform for most journalists and reporters scouting for stories.
This story, with a pointed focus on the way Tutoroo has dealt with those who are offended, has already made it to media.
But, for now, it looks like Tutoroo and its Founder have firmly decided that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and all this outrage is a way to get the brand name to register in more people’s minds. Even if such a register is negative.
Let me leave you with an advertisement for another language education company that does not use any innuendo in its story-telling and still makes you smile.