Norm Non-compliance and Erasures of Connected Memory – A Case Study of Dunkin Donuts

By- Manansa, Akansha, Trisha and Manvika

Norms are a catalyst of change in the behavior of states and entities. Exploring this relationship, this essay takes a realist perspective to understand the behavior of transnational entities when they are faced with contrasting cultures of normative ideals. Through a case study of the racist ad campaign by Dunkin Donuts, this essay argues that it’s contrasting normative positions led to erasures of connected memory that led to the double marginalization of the black community.

(The essay does not seek to legitimize or justify the actions of the entity, but to merely provide a  comprehensive argument that describes its actions.  )

“Break every rule of deliciousness,” read the slogan that accompanied the poster of an ad campaign  of the Thailand division of Dunkin’ Donuts for their new venture, the charcoal donut. Featuring  the daughter of the chief executive of the Thailand division with dark makeup, bright pink lipstick,  and a 1950’s beehive hairstyle, the ad was termed as “bizarre and racist” by a leading American Humans Rights organisation. To this, the CEO of the Thailand Franchise responded “It’s  ridiculous” 2. Justifying the ad campaign by claiming that the usage of racial stereotypes was  normalized in the local culture, the Thailand division was caught in a tension between the global  norm of racial sensitivity and local culture of racial stereotype normalization.  

Norms in the realm of international relations is an aspect that is not yet explored in depth. A large  part of the literature focuses on the relationship between global and local norms. The distinction  of identities of global actors and local actors in the normative domain has been central to the  understanding of its relationship with the behaviour of states. Contributing to this literature, the  essay explores a new dimension of understanding the relationship between the behaviour in terms  of compliance or noncompliance of a transnational entity to contrasting normative cultures; this is  explained through a case study of a corporate entity, i.e. Dunkin Donuts that exists in the  transnational system of capitalism. Using a realist perspective, the essay posits a two-fold  argument: first, that transnational entities adopt and adapt to local and global normative principles  as part of their branding strategy to enhance their standing in the global system. Second, the  branding of such an image leads to the double marginalization of another entity/group as it tends  to fetishize their struggles and erases the historical memory between itself and the marginalized  other.  

Normalisation of Racial Tropes 

‘Blackface’ in Asia is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it was brought by the West back in the 1850s  when Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships brought minstrel shows for entertainment with blackface  (to signify dirt and impurity). Since the historical interaction between Asians and Africans has  been very limited as compared to the latter’s complicated interaction with Caucasians, racist tropes  used commonly within Asia have not received much global attention so far. For instance,  Blackface was common among K-pop artists in the mid-2010s, but because of their increasing  global popularity, they received global backlash and as a result conformed to the global norm of not using such racially insensitive symbols 3. Similarly, many Chinese and Thai brands have also  long used these problematic racist tropes for advertising but have not come under fire because their  origin and audience are both local, thus establishing it as a regional culture of racial normalization. 

Evaluated by the World Values Survey, almost 28% of Thai respondents said that they would not  prefer to have neighbors of a different race. In comparison, less than only 5% of the respondents  from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Brazil, and Norway responded in a similar manner 4. The  Thailand CEO’s words that ‘not everybody in the world is paranoid about racism,’ can be taken to  understand the difference in the results and the normalized culture of discrimination and  marginalization of racial minorities in Thailand. This contestation of the local and global norm is  made evident when looking at the location of the incident, Thailand, and the location of dissent for  the same, New York. The Human Rights Watch, the NGO that opposed it claimed about how a  similar campaign would’ve spurred “howls of outrage” in America.  

Contestation of Norms 

With dissenting voices echoing over incidents of racial brutality like in the case of Eric Garner,  racial and gender sensitivity has transcended beyond a theoretical norm to one that is in common  parlance across the globe. However, transnational norms in local cultures are either localized or  rejected for failing to align with the local normative order5. In this case, the rejection of the global  norm by Thailand’s local culture was adapted by Dunkin’ Donuts in order to brand its image in  accordance with the local population. The decision of non-compliance with the global norm is in  accordance with the local normative order.  

As a multinational corporation seeking to maximize its sales, we can understand Dunkin Donuts’  decision of norm non-compliance from a rationalist perspective, since it undertook a cost-benefit  analysis in its decision to brand itself in an indigenous context 6. In the words of the CEO, “I’m  sorry, but this is a marketing campaign and it’s working very well for us.” The peculiarities of this  case lie in the fact that while the global norm is rejected from being localized, a global food chain  is dividing itself to create a localized brand for itself. Thus, norms aren’t the driving force of action, but it is the tool to realize the goal of building an indigenous market. 

The fetishization of struggles Erasures of Connected Memory 

A critical question to be explored is what is problematic with such branding? Given the geographic  placement of the ad, the historical and racial implications of the advertisement make the ad a  problematic one. Firstly, the dramatic visual of a sexualized black face with accentuated lips  painted in a bright pink along with the elaborate hairstyle references to the 20th c. Jim Crow  stereotypes purported by Americans that are now considered offensive and racist. Secondly,  drawing a connection between charcoal and black, the commercial that was released along with  the poster features an Asian woman who consumes the donut and turns black. The naming and  branding of the product along with the ad campaign utilizes the colour black to signify  “rebelliousness, deliciousness, exoticism, and pleasure.” Being associated with dirt and soot, the  name charcoal replaced with the metaphor of black ascribes these characteristics as well.  

The sexualization and racialization of the advertisement to brand the indigenous image of Dunkin’  Donuts fetishizes the long struggle of the black community to earn a life of dignity. The  epistemological use of racial tropes erases the connected memory of the relational identities that  the American and black community held in the timeline of history. The legitimisation of the use  of racialised tropes to brand their standing in the local community reinforces the asymmetries of  power between the two communities and further marginalizes the value of their identity. 

The action occurs from a position of power that possesses the ability to normalize racialized  discourse as the harm is being perpetrated on an already marginalized community. This treatment  of the community as the ‘other’ that can be objectified and sexualised appropriates their identity  and simultaneously fetishizes their struggles. Rather than taking responsibility for the connected  history of marginalization, the company’s actions doubly marginalized the community as the  responsibility of being offensive is transferred by the Thailand Chief, in his statement, to the image  of the black person that is portrayed. This in turn projects the company as innocent by ignoring the  imperialist connections that America had with the Black community. Extrapolating this  understanding to the behavior of states, Danewid’s piece resonates a similar argument in the  context of pro-refugee activism. She explores how nation branding tends to project an image of  itself as the ethical and good entity, which effaces its connected histories with the refugee groups  and thus leads to their double marginalization 7

Norms are a catalyst of change in behavior of actors. In this essay, we have analysed this  relationship between norms and behavior with an additional layer of argumentation regarding the  branding of the entity. The underlying norm, prevalent not only in Thailand but in most other Asian  countries, is the depiction of darker skin tones as the ‘other’ or the peculiar subject. This colourist  trope is common across advertisements for skincare products as well regular familial discourse.  The Thai CEO’s initial dismissal of the Human Rights Watch’s claim was a failure to understand  the global norm of rejection of all forms of racism. Being a transnational corporate entity, Dunkin  Donuts was subject to a level of scrutiny that other local brands might not have been. Thus, their  branding saw a shift under increasing global pressure and a need to adopt the normative order. The  Charcoal Donut had failed in its attempt as a creative food advertisement. The lack of exposure to racial sensitivity, on the part of the Thai people, did not excuse it’s fallacies since it inadvertently  fetishized the struggles of black people around the world and erased the connected histories of  oppression. 


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Edinhorn , Bruce, et al. “In Asia, Brands Built on Racist Stereotypes Face Scrutiny.”  Bloomberg, June 25, 2020. to-black-people-are-still-common-in-asia.  

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Access the Footnotes of this Essay here