Getting to grips with blackface – the challenge for Asia’s marketers

As yet another racism scandal ripples through Asian media, Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson argues it's time for marketers and broadcasters to accept 'blackface' belongs in the past. Because if they don't, their audiences will do it for them

Another day and another ‘blackface’ controversy hits Asia.

In case you missed it, China state broadcaster CCTV found itself at the centre of a global storm after a Chinese New Year gala comic skit featured a local actress dressed as an African woman – complete with brown body paint, fruit and a man in a monkey suit. A full checklist of African stereotypes ticked. 

Probably surprisingly for CCTV, their intended humorous sketch did not go down well. Within hours of its broadcast both the internet and international media was alight with one word: racism.

You can see how the reaction unfolded below. First it was social media:

And very soon international media outlets jumped on board:

There are few scandals any brand wants their name tied to, and perhaps the worst of the lot is racism. As the above reactions demonstrate, blackface and racism go hand-in-hand today.

Not ideal given that with 700 million viewers, the Chinese New Year gala is perhaps the most-watched show on the planet.  And now thanks to a single 13-minute sketch within a lengthy four-hour program, CCTV has found itself beginning a year of public relations disasters rather than the Year of the Dog.

You could perhaps forgive the media masterminds at CCTV for being unaware of blackface’s unpalatable history – as an American vaudeville act that saw white actors portraying grotesque caricatures of African Americans up until the 1970s.

What is less forgivable is the ignorance of the spate of controversial campaigns and media scandals that have permeated Asia in recent years. Indeed, the below examples point to a rather alarming trend. 

Back in 2013 and American food chain Dunkin Donuts released – and subsequently pulled – this Thai ad showing a woman painted black to sell a ‘Charcoal Donut’. Human Rights Watch called the ad “both bizarre and racist”.

Skip to January 2016 and Thailand found itself once again at the centre of a storm for a skin-whitening pills ad that showed an actress becoming sad after her pale skin turns black. The voice over declares: “Just being white, you will win.” Again the ad was pulled within hours.

Later in 2016, Singapore’s national broadcaster Mediacorp found itself in hot water after a popular drama series I Want To Be A Star featured actor Shane Pow dressed in an afro wig and wearing ‘blackface’ make-up. If you’re starting to sense a pattern here, then no prizes for guessing what happened next: Mediacorp’s streaming platform Toggle promptly deleted the offending scene.

Last year, Malaysia gave us the Watsons Hari Raya ad, that at first appeared as an epic tale of love against adversity until it turned out that adversity was the lady’s black skin.

“An appallingly badly judged piece of promotion in many respects,” was the verdict of half-Malaysian ad land veteran and equality campaigner Cindy Gallop. You can probably assume what the brand did next.

And then finally, we return to China again last summer, when news agency Xinhua sparked an international backlash for this mocking portrayal of an Indian man.

What’s important here is that every incident sparked more than just a bit of social media pattering.

The latter aside, all of these cases created such global fury that the parties involved were forced to accept defeat and pull the ads or material. An embarrassing measure for everyone involved, but especially so in a market like Asia when ‘saving face’ is everything to an individual and a brands’ reputation.

Unfortunately, in a world of social media, 24-hour news cycles and content-hungry audiences, pulling the plug on a campaign is by no means the end of the saga. The ripples can continue for days and weeks.

And once that has died down, you’re still left with the search results. Today if you Google Dunkin Donuts Thailand or Watsons Malaysia, the third or fourth results are news articles covering the scandals. It leaves a lasting reputation that no amount of PR effort or re-branding can erase.

Although seemingly a repeat offender of late, Asia is not the only market where such incidents have occurred recently. Only last year,  Australian broadcaster ABC was at the centre of a storm over a discussion about ‘yellow facing’ – an incident when a white person dresses up as an Asian. In response to the inevitable online backlash, ABC glumly pulled the offending podcast.

What remains a reality in Asia however is that the majority of media and marketing messaging still promotes pale, fair skin as beautiful, while darker skin tones are portrayed as undesirable.

That’s why cosmetic aisles are filled with products claiming to lighten an individual’s skin and why brand names like Fair and Lovely exist. Those are not without their controversies, but for the most part brands are simply appealing to a cultural preference in the same way companies sell fake tan in the West.

But what has become apparent is that brands and media owners in Asia can only push the boundaries of race so far. And that is partly because of the globalisation of the media landscape.

When the brand behind China’s infamous laundry detergent ad, in which a black man was stuffed  into a washing machine only to emerge as a fair-skinned Asian man, apologised for the ensuing backlash, it specifically referenced Western media. 

But Western media headlines spread like wildfire. And no local marketer wants to find themselves before their global boss because their seemingly small, local campaign was splashed across the homepage of The New York Times.

Meanwhile, the revulsion across Chinese social network Weibo towards CTV’s blackface misfire, suggest there is an appetite for change at home. Some beauty brands like Korea’s La Neige have even tapped into this by creating content and products that favour darker skin. 

Nevertheless, the ‘rinse and repeat’ pattern of instances suggests some of this feeling is falling on deaf ears. So what will it take for Asian media executives, marketers and agencies to wake up and realise blackface belongs long in the past?

Although CTV has yet to apologise or comment on the New Year furore, you would at least hope its executives have well and truly learnt their lesson that blackface or any kind of racial stereotyping is unlikely to go unnoticed or unremarked upon today.

But if I’m proved wrong, then come the next incident I may even start taking bets on when and where the next scandal will erupt from. I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of pundits. 


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