Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Hula" STI app offends indigenous Hawaiians, plans to carry on regardless

Via Wikimedia
It's getting to the point where marketers are being challenges to rethink our causal brand appropriation of cultures — even when we mean no harm.

Case in point: The Hula app, "a free way to find STD testing, get the results on your phone, and share your verified STD status," has made some native Hawaiians angry.

From Global News:
An online petition is asking for the “Hula” app to change its name.  
The three college students who started the petition say they are not opposed to the app’s functions but don’t want to see the hula dance – a beloved cultural art form – exploited. 
“My culture is more than a tourist destination,” said Kelly Luis, a student at Columbia University. “It is more than a place to go for the summer. It’s more than just sexy hula girls on the beach. There is a culture there.”

The petition, which so far has just over 1200 signatures, details how Hula was a sacred art form that was suppressed by colonial missionaries, and is now degraded by sexualized portayals in popular culture.

Some protestors on the Hula Facebook page also bring up the supreme irony in naming an STD app after a Polynesian sacred rite. Following European contact in the late 1700s, venereal diseases introduced by foreign sailors decimated indigenous Pacific island nations. From the time of Captain Cook's landing in Hawaii in 1778 to 1853, the population of the islands fell from an estimated 300,000 to just 71,019.

Screencaps via Hula

I have no doubt that the people developing the Hula app and brand bore no ill will towards the Hawaiian people.

Global reports that the company posted the following on their Facebook page:
“We are in the process of learning more from your community, discussing internally and hope to address your concerns shortly.”

I can't seem to find it, however.

The company's CEO and founder, Ramin Bastani, told AP that he is going ahead with the brand name, but will stop using puns like "getting lei'd" because he "didn't realize that it was offensive."

Here's his story about the brand evolution:
The app was originally named, but it sounded too similar to a dating site and was changed to "Hula" because the company wanted to evoke a "sense of beauty and being relaxed," Bastani said. "It was a pop culture sense of the name." 
"We loved the idea of calm and beauty of anything Hawaiian," he said, "which is the antithesis of anything having to do with health care." 
Learning about Hawaiian culture has taught him that dancing hula is a "communication tool" used to pass on information among generations, Bastani said. "That plays very well with what we actually believe as the core of the company."
To be honest, I could have made the same mistake. It's really easy to see cultural traditions, which have been treated so superficially for so long in popular culture, as nothing more. And indeed, Hawaii itself has marketed a sexy, silly, version of Hula for some time.

This instance is not easy to be judgemental about. Native Hawaiians have the right to define what their cultural and religious properties mean to them, and are more than justified in being offended. At the same time, "mainstream" western culture has a tradition of treating its own religions irreverently.

The Hula people most likely believe that the controversy will blow over. In the meantime, they will probably actually benefit from the publicity, since everyone now knows who they are.

Meanwhile, the Hawaiian students have an international stage on which to start to redefine the way we perceive and treat indigenous cultures and their best-known rituals.

In a weird, cynical, marketing-world way, everyone kind of wins this one.


  1. Hi there, it's great that you're grappling with some of the complexities of this issue. But I'd like to add a little more perspective. (1) That "sexy, silly hula" that "Hawai'i itself has marketed" came from the period when the Kingdom of Hawai'i was illegally overthrown, and Native Hawaiians were not allowed to speak their language in public, or to do other cultural practices. The period of the so-called "provisional government" of traitors who toppled the kingdom with the help of a U.S. naval vessel, and then later the so-called territorial period (where there was no actual treaty of annexation), was a time when the Hawaiian culture was commercially plundered, distorted, and commodified for the sake of promoting tourism. It's pretty tough when there are few places to work, and few jobs to be had, that do not involve some kind of distortion of the culture. The flappers of the 1920s, and musicians of that era, made silly mockeries of the dance with nonsense lyrics. Hollywood filmed it. Grass skirts (which are not Hawaiian) came into vogue. All kinds of really insulting and stupid things happened so that the elite and business classes could make money from a fake image of paradise - and so it continues. Writers like Haunani Kay Trask have quite a lot to say about this prostitution of the culture which has resulted in an erasure of people and tradition. During the "Hawaiian Renaissance" of the 1970s, Hawaiians began to reclaim quite a lot of cultural territory - and pride. Hula is one of those hard-won territories. (2) Probably all the Hawaiians alive today had ancestors who perished through the truly awful STDs brought by Capt. Cook and his men, and subsequent visitors and settlers. They had no resistance - and no means of treating these new diseases either. Their suffering was beyond what we can imagine, their deaths were horrible. Families, communities, the islands - decimated. The population has never recovered. So - there's no win-win about this situation. Bastani has taken one of the most precious parts of this culture and wants to slap his interpretation on the word "hula." Did you know, that to Hawaiians, words in their language have great power and meaning? That's another thing to consider. It's not just a word, not just a dance. What Bastani is committing is one of the most heinous cultural appropriations to come down in a loooooong time. (3) Hawaiians today bear the scars and fresh wounds of numerous, multi-generational traumas as a result of foreign contact, influence, and colonization. This newest atrocity is physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatic to them. There is great, deep, gut level and heart-felt anguish here. (4) As a sexologist and sex counselor, I am appalled at the level of insensitivity here. I know that as this matter continues in controversy, clinics, public health departments, school districts, and helping professionals are going to be less likely to want to use this app. They will not want this controversy, even if Bastani thinks he's getting free publicity. The individual user may not care, but I assure you, the professionals involved in STD and sexual health fields do! Bastani is shooting himself in the foot by not changing the app name back to what it was. No one wins. (5) Hula is already a worldwide phenomenon, with schools in Mexico, Japan, Poland, you name it. The college kids who started this petition actually have other ways of educating people about their culture. But here's the link. It's important to sign. Thank you.

  2. Here's a good video by Chad Kukahiko that explains matters very well.