(Antfer) #1
◼ BUSINESS Bloomberg Businessweek June 29, 2020

14


● MarketingpitchesthatareinsensitivetoBlackanddark-skinnedconsumersarecommon

In Asia, Brands Have


A Race Problem, Too


Almost 90 yearsago,consumer-productsmaker
Hawley& Hazeldecidedtopiggyback on the pop-
ularity of vaudeville singers like Al Jolson, a White
man who won fame in Jim Crow America performing
in blackface. The Shanghai-based company named
its new toothpaste brand Darkie and emblazoned its
packaging with a blackfaced man sporting a top hat
and a toothy grin. Even before the recent Black Lives
Matter protests around the globe, maintaining that
kind of racial trope would have been considered a
marketing bridge too far in much of the world.
Not so in Asia. The English name on the tooth-
paste’s packaging was changed in the late 1980s
after Colgate-Palmolive Co. bought 50% of the
brand, but the product kept its racially charged
name in Chinese. It’s still called Hei Ren Yagao—
“Black Person Toothpaste”—in China and is one of
the nation’s top sellers.
As the Black Lives Matter movement puts compa-
nies on the spot for slavery-associated brands such
as PepsiCo Inc.’s Aunt Jemima and Mars Inc.’s Uncle
Ben’s, multinationals also are facing growing pres-
sure to address the racism built into their products
targeted at consumers who live far from the U.S.
That’s particularly true in Asia, where skin color has
long been tied to class and the limited visibility of
Black people has allowed some businesses to ignore
them—or, worse, make them the butt of their jokes—
when crafting their marketing pitches.
“Even in areas like China where they don’t
have a lot of Black residents, it will still be a prob-
lem,” says Allison Malmsten, an analyst with Daxue
Consulting, a market-research firm in Shanghai.
“Because of people’s global awareness, it’s going
to be really hard to get away with any brand with a
racist history, even in a country that doesn’t have
that history. It’s only a matter of time before the
pressure will be too strong.”
Colgate says it’s reevaluating how it positions
Darlie, the slightly tweaked English name that
Darkie toothpaste assumed after Colgate bought
into the brand. “We are currently working with our

partner to review and further evolve all aspects of
the brand, including the brand name,” Colgate said
in a statement.
Change doesn’t come easily when stereotypes
are deeply ingrained among the region’s consum-
ers. Brands that connect white teeth and black
skin, for example, can resonate with Chinese who
rarely encounter Black people, says Gemmy Cheng,
a 21-year-old student in Hong Kong who started
brushing with Darlie as a child. “I just thought
Black people usually have white teeth, so the per-
ception the product [is] showing is that it’s helping
my teeth get whiter and brighter,” she says. “Maybe
it’s because Black people are so far from our daily
life, so I only have one image of them: white teeth.”
Cheng certainly isn’t the only one attracted to
the racially tinged message. Darlie/Hei Ren is suc-
cessful across East Asia, commanding 17% of the

◀ A vintage ad for Darlie
toothpaste in Shanghai