China Business, Racism, and Glocalization

China racism

I spoke with a good-sized client the other day who told me of how her company was having to “harmonize” its China product return policies with those of the United States and the EU. This company had previously given Americans and Europeans 6 months to return its (mostly commercial) product, while giving Chinese customers only 30 days. The client’s explanation was that it was concerned “too many” Chinese customers would take advantage of the six months.

In fairly short order, however, this company felt that too many of its Chinese customers knew they were being short shrifted as compared to this company’s American and European customers and this “feeling” would likely end up being worse overall for the company than if it simply extended its return-by date for China.

In other words, companies need to get ready for how their actions outside China will influence their actions inside China and vice-versa.

A loyal reader — an international lawyer in Mexico — recently sent me a Newsweek article entitled, Back to the Days of Blackface, which discusses the fallout Colgate-Palmolive has incurred from its ownership stake in a product/brand that would be considered offensive/racist to the overwhelming majority of Americans:

Of all the unfamiliar products in a Chinese supermarket, one of the most shocking to American visitors is a toothpaste featuring the logo of a minstrel singer in a top hat, flashing a white smile. Even more shocking: the paste, known as Darlie in English and as Black People Toothpaste in Chinese, is a product of the Hawley & Hazel Group, a Hong Kong–based company established in 1933, which is now owned in part by the Colgate-Palmolive Co.

Darlie used to be called Darkie. According to the book America Brushes Up: The Uses and Marketing of Toothpaste and Toothbrushes in the Twentieth Century, the CEO of Hawley & Hazel saw blackface performer Al Jolson in the U.S. and thought, “Jolson’s wide smile and bright teeth would make an excellent toothpaste logo.” He was right: the firm now claims to be one of the market leaders of toothpaste products in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.

Colgate purchased 50 percent of the company in 1985 and, after three years of criticisms, switched the name “from Darkie to Darlie and modified the logo to a less crude version of a black man.” In 1989, Colgate-Palmolive’s chairman stated, ‘’It’s just plain wrong. The morally right thing dictated that we must change [in a way] that is least damaging to the economic interests of our partners. Yet the Chinese name of the product has remained unchanged.

This product’s name and imagery is simply no big deal in China, where “it wouldn’t even occur to them that Black People Toothpaste [another brand of toothpaste in China] is offensive.”

But Colgate is a Western company:

Yet Colgate is a Western company, and as such, “should know better,” says Kwame Dougan, an African-Canadian living in China. Colgate declined NEWSWEEK’s interview requests, instead releasing a statement saying, “There are different perspectives on this issue.” Hawley & Hazel also declined an interview request. Darlie doesn’t exactly advertise its relationship with Colgate; Colgate’s Web site has only two mentions of Darlie, which both talk about how the brand is driving growth in the Asia-Pacific region. Darlie products examined in China for this story featured no mention of the Colgate label.

“I think that the brand should simply be retired,” says Laura Berry, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, one of the organizations that originally pressured Colgate to fix its Darkie brand. Until then, Darlie smiles on.

I agree.

When I was a kid, my parents would chastise me for my McDonald’s cheeseburger addiction by bringing up McDonald’s poor history of minority hiring. Being the future lawyer that I was (and viewing five McDonald’s cheeseburgers as the finest meal ever invented), I did my own research and read how Ray Kroc insisted he had nothing against African-Americans, but he just did not think customers were ready to have them at the counters. Here is a guy who himself knew racism was wrong (and I am taking him at his word on this) but went along with it for business reasons. That really bothered me and I thought it in some ways worse than the flat-out racist who refuses to hire People of Color.

is Colgate doing the same thing as Ray Kroc? Is what Colgate is doing even good business?  What do you think?

12 responses to “China Business, Racism, and Glocalization”

  1. I’m quite surprised to learn that Colgate thought they could sweep their stake in Darlie under the rug.
    If Darlie changed its Chinese name to something less racist it would probably lose a huge number of customers. So Colgate seems to have chosen to make huge amounts of money rather than change a tremendously valuable brand for the sake of Americans’ racial sensitivities.

  2. Because of the way the whiteness of their teeth contrasts with the darkness of their skin it makes their tooth look cleaner than it otherwise would. Granted the word “Darkie” actually was a racial slur and should rightfully be changed, but overall is it really racist to say black people have really great looking teeth?

  3. Interesting, I just bought toothpaste today at Carrfour, in the southern part of China. Although I can see where everyone is coming from I don’t think that Chinese consumers are seeing racism when they see this specific toothpaste on the shelf.
    I’ll be honest I don’t know what they see but I highly doubt that a mother and her child are debating how bad the parent company is for having a dark skinned person on a toothpaste tube.
    I understand where all of this is coming from, but if people can advertise beauty products in China with the use of white or fair skinned people, why can’t they use a dark skinned image with nice shiny teeth?
    Furthermore does it matter? I’m just trying to give a different perspective on this, but really, if 1.3 billion people could give care less and 100 people seem to have a hussy fit, than what would you do as a company?
    Now yeah, if retiring the marketing campaign and starting something fresh, it ore feasible and more profitable, than so be it.
    Should marketing in one part of the world listen to another part of the world’s backlash, well, they very well might have to, I suppose it depends on the back lash.

  4. Well, on one hand there have been several “western” ad agencies that got raked over the coals for advertising that would be completely innocuous in North America or Europe, but that really ran afoul of Chinese sensitivity and/or cultural aesthetics. There was that Lebron James commercial where he was dunking on a dragon, if I recall correctly? There is at least one more with a dragon portrayed in a non-Chinese way. And then there are the instances of advertising – most of them Chinese in origin – that portray the Japanese in too friendly or neutral a light. I remember one video game that depicted some emblem that resembled the Japanese flag; there was quite a stir about that.
    On the other hand, I’ve encountered Chinese who are mindful of stereotypes – both about themselves and outsiders – thought they aren’t nearly as vocal about speaking out in opposition to them as westerners are. I doubt they are tonedeaf or indifferent to the idea of racism against others.
    The only way Colage might bow to the pressure would be if it were internal, some Chinese group or prominent person “points out” the history of the image and term and then makes a comparison to a similar thing in the west. Otherwise, for many (certainly not all!) Chinese it would appear to be more bowing to outside pressure when they should be showing a little spine, the better to befit their new weight in the world

  5. Big fuss out of nothing. Would it cause an uproar, if it was named 白人牙膏? Besides, it’s mostly white people saying it’s racist (guilt?). Kinda smells fishy to me…

  6. @Jonathan
    So should white people’s opinion on race be discounted/ignored, except for when they are accused of being racist?

  7. Businesses in China and elsewhere operate according to different sets of values and principles in so many areas, why should sensitivities about racial stereotyping be an exception? At the end of the day, the profitability of the thing is all that really matters, and I highly doubt that people in the US will stop buying Colgate-Palmolive products to the extent that it would offset the profitability of the Darlie brand. The people who make these decisions are evaluated based on share prices, not on ethical soundness. All’s fair that’s legal…

  8. An apparently unrelated Chinese company sells 黑妹牙膏 HeiMeiYaGao (Black sister toothpaste), which I believe was an imitation developed in China before Darlie was present (or perhaps before Darlie returned; apparently Darkie was invented in China but the company moved to Taiwan in 1949). By the way, I believe Darlie is also sold in Thailand.

  9. I am Chinese and I really don’t think there would be any problem of racist regarding the Black People Toothpaste. China is one of the developing countries and all the children here are told by the society that “African people are the old friend of Chinese people”. I would suggest the author of this article come to China and talk with the Chinese customers in the supermarket to find out more.
    Certainly, if the African people or anyone else does not like the brand named “black people”, we would suggest the companies involved to make necessary changes. I have noticed that this is not a Chinese problem but rather a western problem. Nevertheless, we buy a certain product because it is produced by credible company but not because its eye catching name.

  10. OK, somebody has to point out that king is naked, so let it be me.
    Problem is not the image of black guy on the toothpaste. Problem is this political-correctness thing, that is causing our tongues get twisted like columns in China’s statistics: neat, but when you reach the end, it feels kind of weird and you can’t quite get how and why did u end up right there, at the first place. Twenty years ago, it was no problem to call somebody “white”. Now, i am told this word is taboo in English and i am forced to use “Caucasian” (BTW, why did we – as i m white – got “Caucasus”? Why not something fancier, like Alps, after all that is where white ppl live, not in Caucasus.) Following the twisted logic of advocates of political correctness, after ten years, to some of them even this term will sound too incorrect and a new word will have to be invented and spellcheckers upgraded.
    But despite all the dancing on this verbal tightrope, the fact will still remain that renaming “a green apple” into some “spectrally positioned fruit” does not make it less green or less sour.
    Dont get me wrong. I am absolutely against any for of racism or discrimination. And it is great that after couple of centuries we’ve reached the level when law and society grant protection against racial slurs and outward offending language. But when i say i m against “any form”, it includes also this kind of empty, meaningless, inverted racism, when someone sees a black guy on toothpaste and starts smelling racism in the box. The reality is that humans are – like it or not – delivered at more ratial variations, so whichever race you use, it can always be deemed to be racist by this strange logic:”Why black? Why man?” What is the poor manufacturer then supposed to put there – some androgynous and blue creature like Haibao? Haibao ain’t got no teeth, man… 🙂

  11. All the Chinese look the same, including the 55 minority peoples. There’s no racism in China. That’s why we don’t have this concept in mind. It surprised me a lot when I heard of this topic. I don’t like people who force their values to other countries.
    The only people who are concerned about this are people who used to be or have still been in a racist environment.

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