Everyone’s Angry at This Racist Chinese Ad, but It Says Something About America Too

Is Qiaobi too easy a target?

Every few months, a racially offensive advertisement emerges from Asia and makes the rounds in America, to howls of disgust. It's happened again this week, as a Chinese laundry detergent brand called Qiaobi released a spot—airing on TV and in cinemas, according to Shanghaiist—in which a black man gets shoved in a washing machine and comes out looking … quite different.

Check out the ad here:

Obviously, the commercial is reprehensible. The tagline at the end translates to, "Change starts with Qiaobi." And while the ad tries to hide behind a visual metaphor about the cleanliness of clothes, it obvious plays off the notion of black people somehow being dirty—and clearly inferior to the light-skinned Chinese.

But the Western reaction to it has been more than a little self-serving, too.

A number of news reports have asked—a bit too gleefully, and either purely as clickbait or because they genuinely wondered—if the spot is the "most racist ad ever." Well, no, it isn't. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out yesterday, it's part of a tradition of racist soap ads that has a long history in America, and Britain too. These vintage ads for Pearline and Pears soaps are just as "jaw-droppingly racist" as the Qiaobi one.

And if you thought the particular plot of the Qiaobi ad was a Chinese idea, it's not. As Shanghaiist also pointed out, it's a ripoff of an Italian campaign from a decade ago.

Of course, such overtly racist depictions are no longer acceptable in American ads, which makes it easy to demonize the Chinese work. Probably too easy. Yes, this kind of commercial reveals something about the extent of racism in China. But America hasn't exactly evolved past its own entrenched racial troubles—not when presumptive presidential nominees are openly advocating the blocking of all Muslim entry to the U.S., or when every U.S. consumer brand that posts an image of a mixed-race family online still gets flooded with hate.

Speaking of which, have a look at the reader comments on American stories about this Qiaobi ad. There's a small but consistently vocal group who deny the ad is racist in the first place—or say its critics are "overreacting." True, this ad would never air in America. But if it somehow did, it would be disturbing just how many people would defend it. 

Of course it's encouraging, on a basic level, to see a widespread outcry against a racist message. But let's temper our shouty indignation a bit and see the Qiaobi ad for what it is—a piece of trash, but not one that should make us feel quite as superior as we might want.

UPDATE: The maker of Qiaobi detergent, the Leishang cosmetics company, responded to the criticism over the weekend. A spokesman told China's Global Times: "We meant nothing but to promote the product, and we had never thought about the issue of racism. The foreign media might be too sensitive about the ad." 

The company did officially apologize with this statement: 

On May 27, 2016, media organizations and individuals posted information from U.S. media on Sina Weibo: An allegedly racist advertisement for China Qiaobi Laundry Gell Balls had sparked widespread controversy on Youtube. Subsequently, we looked into the matter. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and CNN from the U.S., Britain's BBC and France's Agence France Presse were among those who produced the reports, attracting attention in the U.S., Europe and other places. We have been on top of the situation from the very beginning, and now issue the following statements on relevant issues:

1) We had no intention to discriminate against people of color. We do not make judgments based on skin color. We are strongly opposed to and condemn racism.

2) 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.

3) The publication of the ad and the exaggerated hype surrounding it caused harm to people of African descent—for this, we sincerely apologize, and also express the hope that Internet users and the media will not to read too much into it.

4) Qiaobi Laundry Gell Balls is a local Chinese household chemicals brand. We hope that Chinese brands can grow larger and stronger, and expand around the world.