I don’t remember how it came up in conversation, but a friend asked me how to say “racism” in Chinese. I couldn’t conjure the word. It’s not like I’m a guru in the Chinese language, but I am a native Chinese speaker and I spoke it with parents and family growing up. If I had to make a reference to a racist comment, I would say something like “they don’t like Chinese people.” However, an actual word for racism drew a blank for me, and I had to Google a translation for racism and a word I never heard before came up.
I mention this because there is, perhaps, a lack of recognition of racism in the Chinese language. It’s not like Chinese people don’t experience racism, but the conversation reminded me of the most racist ad I’d ever seen, which, upon its origins, came much more out of ignorance than it did overt racism — a Chinese detergent ad where a Black man is thrown into the washing machine and comes out Chinese.
There was a lot I did not know about the origins of the ad. All I had was the same instinctual “that’s terrible” reaction and outrage as everyone else. According to Emma Graham-Harrison at The Guardian, the Chinese ad was made by Qiaobi, a detergent company owned by Leishang Cosmetics Company. Google “Qiaobi” in U.S. Google to find news and academic articles about the racist ad.
The ad ends with the slogan, in Chinese, of “Change begins with Qiaobi.” Graham-Harrison notes the ad did not originally garner much attention until English-language media picked up on it. After the ad went viral and Leishang was pressured to apologize. However, it wasn’t exactly a full-scale apology. In the words of one man named Wang, a spokesman for the company:
“The foreign media might be too sensitive about the ad…We meant nothing but to promote the product, and we had never thought about the issue of racism.”
Well, to just say “the foreign media might be too sensitive” is tone-deaf, to say the least. To me, as a Chinese-American who lived in China as a toddler and has visited China on various occasions, the ad was indicative, in a strong way, of colorism in China. I am no stranger to whitening creams, comments about how dark my skin is getting because I run so much, or many Chinese women using umbrellas in the sun to stop their skin from tanning.
Let me just say you get the message quickly, even at a young age. Light is good and dark is bad.
According to Cheryl Grant in Very Well Mind, colorism is not just a tendency in one country, but everywhere — people prefer and value lighter skin all over the world, in every minority group. A burgeoning billion-dollar skin-lightening industry is still prevalent, to the point where the World Health Organization (WHO) had to warn against mercury in many of these products.
Going back to the ad, however — how in the world did Qiaobi think it was a good idea? The ad was actually a copy of an Italian commercial from Coloreria Italia, with the very opposite effect, one criticized for fetishizing Black men. A skinny white man is thrown into the washing machine, and then a muscular Black man comes out of the washing machine. The slogan from Coloreria Italia is “Colored is better.”
Looking at the two ads, they are very similar, and the extent to which the Chinese ad copied the Italian ad is jarring. Both ads use the same theme song. Both feature a woman sitting on the washing machine. Both have the man screaming from inside the washing machine. The sheer similarities between the ads are jarring and it’s surprising Qiaobi didn’t get in trouble just for plagiarism.
But the reason behind why the company featured the racist ad, according to one spokesperson, is for the “sensational effect”:
“If we just show laundry like all the other advertisements, ours will not stand out.”
Dahl et al. (2003) discuss “shockvertising” in the Journal of Advertising Research. The authors behind the research paper did two lab studies that found shocking content “significantly increases attention, benefits of memory, and positive influences behavior among a group of university students.”
It’s usually to bring awareness to huge public policy or public health issues — I will personally always remember the anti-smoking ads where people with holes in their throats spoke against smoking, or any drinking and driving commercials.
However, as we can see from the Qiaobi ad, shock value marketing can greatly backfire. Michael Latour and Shaker Zahra write in a 1989 Journal of Consumer Marketing paper that fear arousal in marketing often has inconsistent results. Shockvertising can negatively impact how consumers view a brand.
In Qiaobi’s case, Graham-Harrison notes the ad didn’t even get that much attention at home, with only a couple thousand viewing it on sharing sites. The international scandal did not even result in a significant rise in views domestically — all the ad managed to do for the company was stir outrage abroad. I doubt anyone in the United States or in the countries of foreign-language media outraged at the ad would have bought Qiaobi detergent in the first place.
The ad did kick off significant commentary on Chinese attitudes towards race. In the BBC, similar cases where Chinese netizens were angry about Shaquille O’Neal endorsing a beer brand or a toothpaste being marketed as “Darkie” and “Black man toothpaste” were mentioned.
One Chinese professor, Liu Junhai, said that in China, racial sensitivity is much lower among advertisers than in the West. The company’s tone-deaf apology most certainly did not help its cause. According to Audrey Choong, the regional marketing director for the Pacific Cigar Company, the ad gave a bad image of China to the international company, and resulted in bad effects for Qiaobi:
“Well, what I can say is that if the company wants to increase its brand awareness, it has definitely achieved that, with Qiaobi becoming infamous instead of famous.”
Originally published on Better Marketing on May 17, 2021.