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Cindy Gallop on that Watsons Malaysia blackface ad: ‘Out-of-date, sexist and racist’

Diversity champion and ad land legend Cindy Gallop has criticised Watsons Malaysia’s blackface ad, after the social media backlash that followed its release.

Gallop, who is half Malaysian Chinese, described the pharmacy’s 15-minute online video for Hari Raya as an “appallingly badly judged piece of promotion in many respects”.

Speaking to Mumbrella Asia, she said: “As I said in my Mumbrella360 keynote last year: our industry should not only reflect the world as it really is, but has the opportunity to change the world to be what we and our consumers would like it to be, by creating new aspirational norms that drive increased social benefit in ways that will actually sell far more effectively. Watson’s Malaysia’s customer base is undoubtedly majority female.”

The ad, which has been pulled since the backlash, featured a number of Malaysian celebrities, and tells of the Malay folklore, Dayang Senandong – a story showing a number of beautiful women trying to win the heart of a rich merchant.

Then a woman appears, who is “cursed” with black skin and a beautiful voice. The king falls in love with her voice, but is horrified by her skin and, in the ad, only relents after she has ‘washed her face’ and become pale.

Gallop said: “Why, in 2017, would you decide to focus your Selamat Hari Raya campaign on a traditional folk tale whose out-of-date folk tale tropes mean you end up inevitably deploying sexism, racism and bias to dramatise women competing with each other for a man, women being made to look ridiculous, transgender people and cross-dressers being laughed at, women being judged on their looks alone, and judgement that states that black/dark is ugly and light/pale is beautiful, as evinced by both the blonde Western princess initial winner and the recoil from the black-faced woman?

Gallop at Mumbrella 360 2016

“Why not instead develop messaging that speaks to women through the female lens and makes women – of all races, types, body shapes – feel great about being accepted for themselves in a way much more in keeping with the general uplifting celebratory feel of Hari Raya and with the wonderfully diverse melting pot that is modern Malaysia, and which would also make the women of Malaysia therefore feel great about shopping at Watsons?”

Watson Malaysia has apologised for the ad on its Facebook page on Wednesday, claiming it was meant to promote “inner beauty”.

The company said: “We stand firm on the belief that unity and fairness plays an important role, and we respect people from all nationalities. The video was shot to highlight the Legend and its moral values of inner beauty and that true love exists. We are sorry that some of our fans feel offended by the video which was not our intention.”

After that apology failed to stem the tide of outrage, the company released another apology yesterday.

It read: “The 15-minute video was inspired by the Malay legend Dayang Senandong made popular in the 1965 movie “Dayang Senandong“. It was our intention to convey concepts of inner and outer beauty, unfortunately the video instead offended many.

“Regretfully, we acknowledge that the “Legenda Cun Raya” video is not in-line with the values that we hold dearly in Malaysia. Watsons Malaysia takes responsibility for the video and its content and is truly sorry that some elements have offended the general public.”

“On behalf of Watsons Malaysia we humbly seek your forgiveness and deeply regret any harm that we have caused,” it added.

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