After removing a laptop advertisement featuring the popular stand-up comedian Yang Li, semiconductor giant Intel is having a hard time pleasing both men and women who say the US firm is guilty of sexism – but for different reasons.
Yang, 29, is known in China for her piercing jokes targeting men. An ad posted last Thursday to the microblogging platform Sina Weibo and Taobao, the e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba Group Holding, parent company of the South China Morning Post, played on Yang’s reputation.
“Intel has a taste for laptops that is higher than my taste for men,” Yang quipped in the video.
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A backlash from male users quickly ensued, with some asking why Intel was trying to promote a laptop by insulting the very customers they believed were more likely to purchase the product. Others called for a boycott.
By Sunday, Intel had removed the ad, but that did not quell the controversy. Women charged Intel with appeasing fragile male egos.
Arguments erupted under the latest post on Intel China’s Weibo account, attracting 23,000 comments – much higher than previous posts that rarely hit 100 comments.
Many users questioned “why men cannot take jokes”, picking up hundreds of likes. In one comment with more than 1,500 likes, a user asked, “Why did Intel delete the ad? Why not have a female spokesperson? You only care about male customers?”
Since gaining widespread recognition for her jokes about men, Yang has been a lightning rod for controversy, simultaneously being cheered by women and jeered by men, offended by her incisive ribbing. In her best-known and now iconic one-liner, Yang asked, “Why are men so ordinary, yet so confident?”
In response to the controversy, Intel said the backlash to the ad was unexpected and emphasised its commitment to diversity.
“Diversity and inclusion are important parts of Intel’s culture. We fully recognise and cherish the diverse world we live in, and we are committed to creating an inclusive workplace and social environment with partners from all walks of life,” the company said in a statement, declining to comment further on the about-face.
Views about gender in China have become increasingly polarised. While many men remain dismissive of feminist concerns, feminism is on the rise in the country, where women are becoming increasingly vocal about social and economic inequality that favours men.
Under news items about women online, users have demanded equal treatment in job recruitment, decried domestic violence, and even criticised how the media frames gender-related stories. For now, though, progressive attitudes about sex and gender are largely concentrated among well-educated urbanites.
Against this backdrop, Yang’s comedy has proven widely popular among female audiences, attracting millions of fans.
She initially rose to fame on the Chinese competitive comedy show Rock and Roast. It was only later, after developing a routine of delivering sharp barbs about men wrapped in soft language, that she started facing backlash.
It happened again around Christmas last year, when she joked, “A friend told me that my jokes are challenging men’s bottom line. I was so shocked: men have bottom lines?”
By commissioning Yang for its ad, Intel has stepped on a cultural landmine in an important market. Last year, Intel took in US$20.26 billion in revenue in mainland China and Hong Kong, a quarter of its total US$77.9 billion in global revenue.
It also comes as Intel faces continued pressure from the US-China tech war that has resulted in the US placing a number of Chinese technology companies on a blacklist, limiting who Intel can sell chips to without permission.
In financial reports, Intel has listed changes to trade sanctions and programmes in China promoting the development of the domestic semiconductor industry as risk factors.
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