International adverts are feeding our insatiable appetite for outrage
Ever heard of Qiaobi Laundry Gel Balls?
I doubt if very many of us had on this side of the world - until a week ago. It's a Chinese chemical brand and it sparked online controversy with a recent ad campaign that was decried as deeply racist.
The ad features a paint-splattered black man winking and wolf-whistling suggestively at a Chinese woman who's doing her laundry. In return she pops a detergent capsule in his mouth and stuffs him into the washing machine. When he comes out, the paint is gone, and he's magically become a very pale-skinned Asian guy. The slogan: "Change begins with Qiaobi".
The acting is poor, the production values are low, and yes, there's an uncomfortably racist undertone that black is bad and whiter is better.
So it's not surprising that BuzzFeed ran the ad under the headline 'People Are Outraged Over This Super Racist Ad From China'. From there the BBC, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, Mashable, the Huffington Post and CNN got in on the act. So did the Scottish Daily Record, Stuff.co.nz, the Hindustan Times, Newsweek, Vox - and almost every other online entity that chases impressions to turn a buck.
You could argue that all publicity is good publicity, and that the mountain of coverage was great news for Qiaobi Laundry Gel Balls. But you get the sense that the Chinese authorities would strongly disagree.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman called the ad "an isolated and inappropriate act by a commercial company". Qiaobi Laundry issued its own statement which condemned racism. "We express regret for the controversy triggered by the advertisement and are definitely not trying to avoid responsibility. As for the controversial advertisement itself, we have already terminated promotion efforts and deleted some links to the advertisement online. We hope internet users and media will stop spreading it."
The last line in the statement smacks of an attempt to limit reputational damage to all Chinese businesses. But was it was drafted by the detergent brand, or the authorities? Here it is: "Qiaobi Laundry Gel Balls is a local Chinese household chemicals brand. We hope that Chinese brands can grow larger and stronger, and expand around the world."
While the ad is reprehensible, the western response has been self-serving. Many media outlets saw it as a clickbait opportunity, rather than an example of racism that needs to be challenged.
The internet has made it easier than ever to spot, share and discuss outlandish media from other countries. But let's be clear, holding one culture's ads to the same standards as our own is pointless.
In fact, soap and detergent brands have a rich history of racism. "Why doesn't your mama wash you with Fairy Soap?" a white child asks a black child in an 19th century ad for Fairy soap.
Even worse, another 19th century ad, this time for Pearline Soap, features a black mother cleaning her child, saying: "Golly! I b'leve Pearline make dat chile white".
While we're at it let's also remind ourselves of some of the deeply misogynistic ads that were produced even more recently. "Men are better than women" trumpets an ad from Drummond Sweaters, which shows two jumper-wearing mountaineers ignoring a woman who's struggling to climb a cliff.
"Blow in her face and she'll follow you anywhere," says a 1960s cigarette ad that shows (you guessed it) a man blowing smoke in a woman's face.
"Is it always illegal to kill a woman?" asks the headline of a 1950s ad for a Pitney Bowes franking machine, which tells the tale of a secretary who doesn't want to use a new machine. (She comes around in the end, as the machine gives her more time to gossip.)
The point is that ads are cultural artefacts. Take them out of context and out of their culture, and it becomes easy to sneer. Should we be comfortable with racist or sexist ads from a different time or place? Hell, no. Is there a benefit in using them for our own gratification or to feed an appetite for offence? I don't think so.
The unwanted uproar may well make Chinese brands and businesses more aware of general international sensitivities. But if the response in the western world is to throw our eyes to heaven, and exclaim "bloody foreigners!" are we being any less racist than Qiaobi Laundry Gel Balls?
Sunday Indo Business