By now, you have probably seen it. Who hasn't? It is the commercial that has been seen around the world. Maybe even extra-terrestrially. I am referring, of course, to a Chinese laundry detergent commercial that exploded on social media like, well, the little pod the ad is selling and which seems endowed with powers well beyond getting clothes clean.
The ad in question is for Qiaobi laundry detergent. A young and attractive Chinese woman is preparing to do her laundry. A young black worker appears at the laundry room doorway, holding a paintbrush, and, interestingly, his very dark-skinned face is splotched with white paint, perhaps a harbinger of what is to come in the ad. The man emits a well-executed wolf whistle at the young woman, who beckons him closer. He approaches, and, just at the moment he tries to kiss her, she shoves a Qiaobi detergent pod into his mouth and pushes him headfirst into a washing machine. As can occur only in a cartoon or in a commercial, the young man's entire body is sucked into the machine. The woman slams the machine shut and sits on it, a triumphant smile on her face. The man's agonizing screams can be heard from the shaking machine as he goes through a brief cycle. The cycle done, the woman opens the machine and a young and very fair-skinned Chinese man almost floats out of the machine. He winks at the woman, who is delighted to see him, and he holds out to the viewers a Qiaobi pod. In Chinese, a voice makes a statement as to the product's effectiveness. End of commercial.
But hold the pod, folks. It seems this ad's concept has been seen before, about a decade ago when a nearly identical ad (even the background music is the same) was broadcast in Italy. In that version, a very thin white man is also pushed into a washing machine, goes through the rapid and equally agonizing cycle, but emerges as a muscle-flexing black man against a hip-hop soundtrack. The tagline, a play on the product's name "Coloria," says "Coloured is better."
For the most part, the reaction to these ads, especially the one for Qiaobi, has been incendiary. Not only has it been condemned as blatantly racist, other voices are asking, "Boys and girls, can you spell 'plagiarism'?" for its uncomfortably close resemblance to the older Italian ad.
What's going on in these ads, anyway? Are they both just cleverly constructed pieces of marketing, a cute way to sell a product employing tried-and-true slapstick and the sight gag to achieve that? In the Chinese and Italian ads, women have the upper hand in deftly asserting their will and physical prowess over the hapless men by pushing them into a washing machine, which results in the women getting the kind of man they really want. In the Italian ad, there is word-play with the product name "Coloria," a wink-wink, nod-nod to a word that can carry a double meaning by referring both to clothing and to people of color. Never mind that black people, at least in America, haven't been called "colored" (or coloured) for decades.
Whatever humor there is in these ads, a lot of people have failed to see it, this writer included. Whereas a dirt-covered white or Asian man could have been thrown in the washing machine and come out spanking clean to the delight of the woman, these ads, with their inclusion of black men as either a "triumphant" muscular figure (Italian ad) or a totally "clean" one (Chinese ad), carries troubling implications.
Once again, we find ourselves in the land of negative images of black people, and especially of black men.
The Italian ad, albeit as playful as a work of opera buffa, presents nonetheless the image of the one-dimensional black man, who is all brawn and, presumably, no brain. He is only an erotic creature, a being endowed with prodigious (and inexhaustible) sexual powers, ready to "perform" anytime, anywhere (maybe even in the laundry room). When it comes to sex, the black man, or, in this instance, the "coloured," man, is superior to his skinny, pale counterpart, whom he usurps.
The scenario played out in the Chinese ad (running since April) elicits more animus. Here, the black man is not a triumphant figure, but is instead completely annihilated in the wash cycle. Is he destroyed because he committed the ultimate faux pas of whistling at and making a move on a very fair-skinned Chinese woman? This brings to mind the horrific story of Emmett Till, who, back in the early 1950s in this country, was lynched for having allegedly whistled at a white woman. That he is supplanted by a very fair-skinned Chinese man suggests that the black man's skin color is dirty and must be therefore "washed out."
I completely agree with the level of social media outcry over these ads, especially the Chinese version. Neither of the black men comes out looking good in his ad; each one is implicitly and explicitly insulting. Both ads suggest a deep-seated obsession with and a completely inaccurate understanding of what blackness means in today's world. Both perpetuate racist mythologies of black sexuality that have no basis in truth and never have.
These ads are not funny; they're hurtful.
This is not an attack on the Italian or Chinese people, who have long and great histories and have given much to humanity. I call for no boycott of their businesses or their products. But the creators of these ads, in mocking another great race, diminish the stature of their own and do nothing towards improving race relations. What I am attacking is the apparent refusal of commercial creators to think and to reject putting profit above respect for others. In the case of China, there are dissenting voices to the Qiaobi ad, voices whose numbers I hope will grow larger and louder, and which will permanently stop that washing machine.