Beyond our righteous indignation, why this already infamous “Chinese laundry” ad should make everyone feel dirty.

May 31, 2016

If you haven’t already seen the commercial, here it is. If you have, well, once is enough. This vulgar, racist thing from China pretty much lowers the bar into mud what constitutes mainstream content. A perky Chinese gal literally whitewashes a lecherous black man. Galling.

One assumes racial relations in China regarding Africans and themselves is far less volatile than what we see in America but that’s still no excuse for this vulgar artifact. It’s a small world. The joke is racist in any language. Surely one of the many, many people responsible for producing this commercial would have had the sense to put his foot down on it? Apparently not. Strange is the response from the detergent company: “We will not shun our responsibility for this controversial content.” Mea culpa? Interesting the use of the word “shun” a term that once related to shaming.

Beyond our righteous indignation (which could easily be examined as well) I have some observations on this spot that will surely not be shared by others. First, there is the irony that one of the most enduring stereotypes of Chinese people, especially before the country’s economic boom, is that they all ran laundries. Taking one’s dirty clothes to the “Chinese laundry” is something we all grew up with. It’s just an irony, I know.

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Pic courtesy of George Parker

Staying on this tangent, in mostly black neighborhoods in America, the community has long had a tenuous relationship within Asian shop owners, each side viewing the other with contempt, not always quietly. That paradigm does not exist in China but one wonders if there are shared ghosts.

Something else. As a creative director I see the “cleverness” of this spot. The detergent is so good it cleans the color off skin. In another universe, where racism wasn’t a rampant part of everyone’s lives, this might be a fun concept. But that’s not the world any of us live in. Here, the spot directly suggests that being dark skinned is akin to being dirty. And lecherous. Maybe a better tack would have been for the subject to be a “dirty old man” as opposed to an African. Then the commercial would have merely been in bad taste as opposed to racist.

Clearly, the sexual politics in the spot adds an intense layer of awfulness to the proceedings. The black man leers, whistles and winks at the virginal young woman. Not so long ago, in America, such behavior could easily have lead to a lynching. Periodically, it still does.

At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I believe many more people than anyone realizes (and not just Americans or white people) are at least passively racist. The proof is all around us, including now in this commercial.

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