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‘We left the guest no choice’ Advertisers drop YouTube comedy show over offensive jokes about protests in Belarus and Khabarovsk

Source: Meduza

The companies Unilever Russia, Mars, Inc., Magnit, and Yandex Lavka have all pulled their advertisements from the YouTube show “Comment Out” after a guest on the show was asked to make offensive social media posts about the ongoing protests in Belarus and Khabarovsk. 

The episode in question came out on August 31. It featured Russian singer Lolita Milyavskaya and the frontman of the band The Hatters, Yuri Muzychenko, as guests. According to the rules of the show, the guests take turns drawing three cards: the first has the name of a celebrity — the guest is expected to write a “random idiotic comment” (in the words of the show’s creators) on this person’s Instagram; the second card has the proposed text of the comment, while the third describes the punishment that will ensue in the event that the guest refuses to post it.

According to the cards, Yuri Muzychenko was tasked with writing an Instagram comment to Russian figure skater Evgeny Plushenko about the protests in Belarus and the white-and-red flag that has become a key opposition symbol. Muzychenko was expected to make the following comment: “Here’s a riddle, who even thought of making such a protest flag for Belarus? The answer: Tikhanovskaya when she saw the period marks on a pad! Get it?”

If Muzychenko refused to write the comment, he would have to post a photo of the protests in Khabarovsk on his own Instagram, with the caption “Know the difference between a penis and thumb. Khabarovsk isn’t Belarus! No concerts there! A dirty town that’s standing up for a killer. Something tells me the new banya prince will wash this riff-raff.” 

Muzychenko refused to post the comment or carry out the punishment. “Offend a whole nation just for a joke for YouTube? What are you doing? What’s wrong with you? Wake up, *****, people, wake up!” he said. The host spent about 15 minutes trying to convince Muzychenko to go through with it, after which his punishment was changed to drinking a laxative. Muzychenko agreed to the alternative punishment. 

Comment Out #24 / Yura Muzychenko x Lolita
Chicken Curry

At the time of writing, this episode of Comment Out had gained 105,000 likes and 278,000 dislikes. The most popular comment on the video was written by the official account of the Belarusian news outlet, and had gained 35,000 likes: “Shame. We have people dying here. Dozens are in jail — including our journalists. And you think it’s funny [...] We’d happily do an interview with you, where you talk about the motivations behind such ‘jokes’,” said.

In response, the team behind the YouTube channel “Chicken Curry,” which airs Comment Out, said that the comment about the protests in Belarus wasn’t meant to be funny — it was intended to create an “extreme situation, in which the person's honest opinion always appears.” “Our task is always simple. A dangerous and offensive comment [that] entices the participant to perform an idiotic punishment [...] Here, two politically sensitive topics came up at the same time. The probability of this coincidence is about 2–3% (this isn’t precise, we’re more from the humanities). We were shocked ourselves, negatively. After all, we left the guest no choice. As such, we changed the participant’s punishment, which breaks the rules,” Chicken Curry wrote on Instagram. 

The team members added that they consider the protests and the formation of civil society an important theme, and therefore decided to draw attention to it. “We’re an independent team of actors. We aren’t affiliated with any political forces. This comment wasn’t ordered or censored. We saw that our SELF-censorship failed. We crossed a line, yes, consciously and in our right minds, but we crossed it. We’re sorry that we offended many people,” Chicken Curry said.

After the episode was released on August 31, several advertisers ended their partnerships with Comment Out. Unilever Russia made its announcement on September 3. “The #UnileverRussia team has contacted the editorial staff of the Comment Out program and found out that [our] colleagues didn’t think it necessary to change their position or modify the content of the episode in any way. In this regard, we intend to make every effort to henceforth avoid [partnerships] that are contrary to the values of the company and damage the reputation of our brands,” the company said in a statement.

On September 7, reports emerged that the grocery delivery service Yandex Lavka was also ending its cooperation with the show — due to a disagreement with the “values and statements” of the creators of Comment Out. That same day, two more advertisers ended their partnerships with the show: the retailer Magnit and the candy company Mars, Incorporated. “We understand our partners and respect their position, even when they jump ship through the breach,” the Comment Out team commented afterwards. 

In June, Russian television host Ksenia Sobchak — who had previously commented on the protests against police violence in the United States, expressing particular concern over reports of looting and property damage — appeared on Comment Out. She was tasked with posting a video on Instagram with the caption “Minneapolis, I am with you. Watch with sound.” The video featured the song “Ubili negra” (which roughly translates as “They killed a Black man”) in the background. The post prompted the German car manufacturer Audi to terminate its advertising contract with Sobchak. Company representatives stated that Audi “rejects all forms of racism and discrimination.” 

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Story by Olga Korelina

Translation by Eilish Hart