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In Hong Kong, the sexual connotation of Ikea's new tofu ice cream ad creates controversy

Online campaign #we love holding hands and hate eating tofu. Photo via Scholars Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity's facebook page.

An online advertisement about tofu ice cream released by Swedish furniture company Ikea in Hong Kong has stirred up controversy on social media.

The Chinese language online ad released on May 3 reads: “You can eat my tofu whenever you like”. On social media, it was attached with a note: “You guys can eat (my tofu), but please be gentle.” In Cantonese slang, “eating someone’s tofu” (食豆腐) means taking sexual advantage of a woman through verbal or physical harassment.

In response, feminist activist group Gender and Sexual Justice in Action demanded the company take down the ad and criticized its sexual connotation on Facebook:

…營造出一種女性嬌羞期待自己身體被「吃豆腐」的效果。而心領神會的大眾不論男女則爭相配合這一語境,表達對「吃豆腐」的躍躍欲試、急不及待。
性別化的信號釋放與對該信號的回應,便構成了一次符號的強化,女性的身體作為隨時可以侵犯甚至期待著被侵犯的對象,這一概念就這樣以看似毫不相關的「雪糕廣告」或者「笑話一則」的方式反覆被強化。

[The ad] generates the image of a woman wishing for her body to be eaten like tofu. The public gets what it means and expresses their urge to “eat someone’s tofu”. The sexual connotation was released and it attracts responses that reinforce the pre-existing gender-sexual relation. The ice-cream ad once again treats woman’s body as an object [desires] to be taken advantage of [by man].

The feminist group's comment attracted a huge number of remarks which attacked the group for reading too deeply into the ads and killing the joke. The furniture company also refused to take down the ads and replied to the group:

We have been working hard to communicate in a playful yet positive manner, so our customers may better understand our offers. The latest Tofu-flavored Sundae promotional post “speaks” for itself to emphasize the silky taste.

A majority of online voices sided with Ikea and more vocal attacks on the feminist group emerged. Deeply troubled by the online reactions, on May 9, a group of 20 civil society organizations jointly filed an official complaint to the Equal Opportunity Commission. The joint letter demanded that the commission investigate the incident:

While the popular furniture brand regards sexual harassment as a joke in its promotional materials, it encourages people not to regard sexual harassment as a serious problem, creating a hostile environment and making it harder for the victims to speak up.

On the social media front, another civil society group, Scholars Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, launched an online campaign #we love holding hands and hate eating tofu.

The campaign calls upon same-sex friends or couples to upload a photo of themselves eating ice-cream while holding hands. The campaign aims to praise the culture of LGBT friendly ads and to express disapproval of Ikea’s tofu ads.

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