You won’t have to ride the bus with THOSE PEOPLE

When a small business places an advertisement, they usually hope to attract customers. Not hate mail, boycotts, hearings, subpoenas, and people digging into their past.

So ads should be carefully worded. And if a business owner is moved to make the copy more… dynamic, maybe they should reconsider that.

Suburban Express is a bus company running 3 large buses and half a dozen smaller ones, ferrying people from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to Chicago.

Take a look at their recent email ad. We bet you can see the problem.

Christ is risen from the dead! A Russian Empire postcard, with a two-deck bus (Lailand?) depicted.

The other passengers don’t look like me.

Yes, you’re right. It’s bullet point 7: “People who look like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

A lot of people didn’t care for that. The Illinois Attorney General’s office issued a subpoena, curious about whether Suburban Express might have violated the state Human Rights Act. The U of I condemned the ad. A student senator suggested banning the buses from the campus area. Five student organizations issued a statement calling the ad an act of racism, and urge students to file complaints

SorryWatch would like to point out that Bullet Point 7 doesn’t look like the other bullet points. It doesn’t have so many Capitalized Words like Fuzzy Slippers, and unlike the other bullet points, it has a period at the end. It’s as if another person added it after the ad was already composed. Or if not another person, another personality.

In response to the initial fury, Suburban Express followed up with this:


A little while ago, we sent out an email that has received some negative feedback.

We made a remark based on the fact that our competitor mostly handles Chinese international students. This remark is being interpreted as a slap in the face of all non-caucasians for some reason, and that it [sic] not how it was intended.

We must concede that we disagree with the way the University of Illinois is being run. U of I is a state school that is funded by taxpayers and is built on land granted by the people of the State of Illinois. As such, we believe that the mission of the University of Illinois should be providing high-quality, affordable education to the citizens of Illinois.

U of I mismanagement over the past few decades has put them in a financial bind. To solve the problem, they admit large numbers of international students who pay higher tuition. Nearly 20% of U of I students are natives of China, and this high percentage of nonnative english speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students.

We agree that having a healthy mixture of different cultures and ethnicities is valuable. But we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder.

In any case, we did not intend to offend half the planet.


Suburban Express

First of all, it’s not an apology, even though it’s headed “Apology.” It’s a rant about U of I policies, and how everybody misunderstood. They got negative feedback “for some reason.” Mysterious, because they never intended to offend “half the planet.” (Which phrase may or may not be a nasty suggestion that only people of Chinese descent were offended.) Secondly, it includes insinuations about unstated “burdens” placed on “domestic” students by international students.

Photo: Joe Mabel. GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 granted by photographer.

I’m concerned that the people on this bus may not dress like me.

Lo! The “Apologymade things worse! One Chicago alderman, Ameya Pawar, posted it on Faceebook, commenting, “This is not an apology! This is an unbelievably offensive and bigoted response. Shame on you. Since you serve O’Hare International Airport, I am going to call for a hearing on your business practices. In them [sic] meantime, you may want to issue a real apology.”

Whoa! Okay, wow, okay!

Suburban Express tried again:

Suburban Express Email Apology

On December 2nd 2017 Suburban Express sent out an email discount with offensive and inexcusable remarks concerning Chinese exchange students. It was incredibly inappropriate and harmful. We fully apologize and accept all responsibility for our actions. We have been made aware of the Illinois Attorney General’s investigation of our practices as well as Alderman Pawar’s call for a hearing. We are working to cooperate with both, and others, to fully respond to and rectify this situation. It is our company’s mission to provide safe, reliable, and fair transportation for all students. We will work endlessly to ensure this.

The initial comment made, “Passengers like you…you won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” was grotesquely xenophobic in nature. There is no benefit, by any measure, to excluding any demographic and we apologize for this indefensible statement. Further, the emailed apology which followed was also harmful insofar as it tried to excuse a wrongfully nationalist statement. The sarcastic tone and disagreement with the University of Illinois’ inclusive practices are just as offensive and wrong and we apologize with great shame.

We are looking forward to working with all students, organizations, and Illinois officials on this matter. Your responses as a community have inspired us as a company to not only expeditiously make amends, and appropriately apologize without excuse, but to relaunch our company’s conduct completely. Although we have never prevented any student of any demographic from boarding our bus simply because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender orientation or nationality, the comments made have created the image that Chinese exchange students are not welcome, and we are striving to change this.

As the year concludes and a new year approaches, we invite all people to work with us and take this incident as an opportunity to get to know us as we work hard to reform our practices. We will strive to work swiftly and professionally to make amends and to adhere to the highest standards of conduct from this moment forward. We only hope you can trust this will never be repeated, and that we will only do better in the future with all students and customers. Thank you.

That’s a lot better. It reads as if someone sat the author down and told them exactly what they needed to do, so they said they’d do it. ‘You have to apologize fully. You have to take responsibility for what you said.’ ‘Okay! We fully apologize and accept all responsibility for our actions.’ But that’s okay.

Photo: Marc Ryckaert/MJJR. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Wherever this bus is going, I want to go.

We suspect some negotiation took place around the sentence “There is no benefit… to excluding any demographic…” Toeppen told one reporter that Suburban Express would never discriminate against PAYING CUSTOMERS. “I want every passenger I can get,” he said, and said most tickets are sold online, making discrimination “technologically impossible.” No, it’s not impossible, but we agree that it’s unlikely. What he actually did was to try using the demographic makeup of his customers as a xenophobic selling point. Which doesn’t seem to have paid off.

It’d also be nice if the part about their conduct relaunch didn’t sound quite so much like hype, but hey, maybe they’ll have a sale.

Meanwhile we’re pondering whether the strategy used in the initial response could work better in another setting. Nope. Writing a non-apology and following it with a zinger like “we did not intend to offend half the planet,” “I never meant to set off the crybabies,” or “I had no idea I’d enrage all womankind” does not work, even if you label it Apology in bold type.

Just a friendly hint.

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8 Responses to You won’t have to ride the bus with THOSE PEOPLE

  1. Donkey Option says:

    It seriously reads like the statement and the first apology were written by one person (a more conservative/bigoted person, a manager or company owner) and when everything blew up, they took away his/her computer privileges and had someone else entirely write the second apology. Because we know that whoever wrote that one line and that first apology does not and will never see that they did anything wrong.

  2. tanita says:

    That second email, though. Double down on the bad with a side of bitter ranting, because that will sure help.

    I still think they should go through with the investigations, apologies or no. Where such problematic attitudes lurk, real trouble reigns.

  3. trebuchet says:

    The company and its owner are notorious for how they mistreat their customers, including publishing personal information and filing lawsuits against people who post bad reviews. They’ve even made the hallowed pages of Popehat.

    • sumac says:

      Wow, suing customers?!?!

    • Saurs says:

      Wow, so all that handwringing over poor Illinois students being oppressed by furriners was a gag, as they regularly exploit any student they can get their hands on. And their busdrivers go on rants about international students not speaking English? And then sue people who witnessed those rants?

      Any good will from that second e-mail should be forfeited. They did it before, they’ll do it again.

  4. MCB says:

    The second apology, while relatively admirable, omitted a key sentence:

    “The original advertisement and first response were created and distributed by Mr. Xeno Phobic, who was our Director of Communications. Mr. Phobic is no longer employed by Suburban Express.”

    Seriously, unless the owner/CEO spent the last several weeks hiding under a rock, he or she should realize that conduct like that needs to have consequences, and those consequences need to be part of any public apology. Unless and until that occurs, I think it is entirely reasonable to continue to consider Suburban Express a racist company.

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