Until last week few people had heard of Qiaobi, a washing powder company whose Chinese name means ‘better looking’.
Now the brand is much better known, after producing a television commercial that has earned horrified headlines around the world.
The commercial shows a Chinese woman doing her laundry. A paint-splattered black man walks in and whistles at her. She beckons him over, pops a detergent capsule in his mouth and shoves him headfirst into the washing machine. To the laundry lady’s delight, he emerges from this ordeal as a paler Chinese chap. “Changes begin with Qiaobi” is the strapline.
The advertisment was produced earlier this year and circulated in Chinese cinemas and on WeChat. But it only gained notoriety when it was picked up in the international media.
Is it the most racist marketing ever, the press asked? A quick review of similar advertisements from the past suggests that it is certainly one of the front runners. It shares a storyline with a washing powder campaign from Sweden in the 1940s, for instance, and bears strong resemblance to magazine advertising in Britain for Pears soaps in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of these ads actually claimed that the soap was the “first step in lightening the white man’s burden” by serving as a “potent force in brightening the dark corners of the earth”.
In fact, the Qiaobi advertisement is a fairly close copy of a much more recent Italian commercial from about 10 years ago.
That said, in the Italian version, the premise is reversed. A woman shoves her weedy European husband into the washer and gets a black man back at the end. Qiaobi even copied the music from this ad.
Chinese reaction to the furore over the case was divided. Few liked the campaign, but many said they failed to see how it was racist. A common theme was that the Western media was overreacting because of their own problems with racism. “Racism is a Western phenomenon,” one person wrote on weibo.
“Americans need to stop being so thin-skinned,” wrote another.
Another view was that Chinese can’t be perpetrators of racism because they are victims of it. In this context, some netizens highlighted the behaviour of the European colonial powers in carving up much of coastal China in the nineteenth century. Others were ready with more topical evidence of discrimation, including a joke about Chinese that the comedian Chris Rock made at this year’s Oscars.
Initially Qiaobi tried to defend the commercial, saying that “the foreign media might be too sensitive” about it. But by Saturday night pressure on the company was mounting and it issued an apology, of sorts. “We had no intention of discriminating against people of colour… We strongly oppose and condemn racial discrimination,” it said via Weibo.
On Monday the foreign ministry felt obliged to comment too. Its spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed the incident as an “isolated case” and insisted that “we are good brothers with African countries”.
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