Written by Giovanna Puppin.

In the last two weeks or so, nothing seemed to spark more online controversy than the Chinese Qiaobi 俏比 ad, which was reportedly screened on China’s TV stations and before movies in Wanda cinemas earlier in May. The commercial began to draw extensive attention starting from 26th May, when it was spotted by the online publication Shanghaiist, and then uploaded on Youtube, where it hit 2 million views in just one day. And this happened not for its positive qualities: BuzzFeed was the first to “honour” it with the title of “the most racist ad of 2016”.

The ad story was soon covered by international media sites – including BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera – and commented on by netizens all over the world, also through reaction videos. As a result, the debate also took off on Chinese social media: the notorious Qiaobi ad –redubbed as “the most racist ad ever” – not only was under the world’s scrutiny, but it was also being read as a mirror of racism in the country (in a political way). On 27 May, Mr. Wang – a representative of the company that owns the brand – said that the ad actually never intended to promote racial discrimination, and that foreign media were possibly being too sensitive about it. The following day, though, the company formally apologised with a Chinese-language statement published on the brand’s Weibo account, which caused another wave of indignation.

(Source: Youtube/ Qiaobi)

The 50-second ad opens on a young Chinese woman loading her top-load washing machine, while a cheerful accordion tune is played in the background; some laundry liquid detergent and colourful boxes are displayed behind her (the brand names have been deliberately blurred). A young black man passes by her flat; when he sees her, he stops at the entrance and starts winking and whistling at her from a distance. Because his face and t-shirt are covered with paint (moreover, he is also holding a brush and a can of paint) it is logical to assume that he has been decorating the interior of a flat (or, less probably, hers). She invites him to come nearer – a move that he visibly appreciates – suggesting an imminent seduction, but just as they are about to exchange a kiss, she places something that looks like a green mint candy in his mouth. Immediately, but less gracefully, she shoves him into the washing machine: then she sits on it and waits.

At this point, the music stops: the sound of the man screaming is clearly discernible from the background noise of the washing machine spinning. On the visual code, the advertised product is revealed: Qiaobi laundry gel balls (contained in the colorful boxes depicted before). Once the spinning cycle is over, the Chinese woman opens the washing machine and a young Chinese man emerges from the drum, in front of her astonished – yet pleased – eyes, and to an energetic, gripping tune. The Chinese man is wearing a flawless, clean white t-shirt, and he hands back the detergent ball she had placed into the black man’s mouth (which we now recognise as the advertised product). He winks at her, and, in doing so, a cartoon-style sparkle magically appears. The last scene of the ad depicts the packaging and the product, and a cartoon-style animated dolphin – the pictogram of Qiaobi’s logo. The pay-off: “Change starts from Qiaobi” (gaibian cong Qiaobi kaishi 改变从俏比开始) appears on the screen, and a slightly altered version is announced by the voice-over: “Change is just a Qiaobi laundry gel ball” (gaibian zhishi yike Qiaobi xiyi rongzhu 改变只是一颗俏比洗衣溶珠). The closing shot shows the national hotline number to call for further information.

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(Source: Youtube/ Qiaobi)

When I first watched the commercial I immediately recognised it as very similar to – yet different from – two previous ad campaigns for the machine fabric dyes by Coloreria Italiana, namely: “Coloured is Better: What Women Want” (2006) and “Coloured is Better: la Vendetta” (2007). As Mr. Aldo Biasi – the president of the advertising agency – explained to me in a telephone interview, these ads were originally circulated on some minor Italian websites on Women’s Day. The creative idea of transforming a scrawny white husband into a buff black man made an explicit use of race-based sexual stereotypes and had a deliberate ironic intent. In Mr. Biasi’s opinion, this is not the case of the Chinese ad, which he described as “a blatant ripoff with an offensive twist”. The Qiaobi ad not only follows the same storyline but, for the first half, even uses the same background copyrighted music (including the diegetic screaming sound!): this makes it quite difficult to believe that neither the company nor the creative team had never seen the original ads before, as they claimed. The company’s official statement makes no reference to the ripoff, but some Weibo-users pointed their fingers at its reprehensible, careless attitude in blatantly copying another campaign, and even expressed skepticism towards the “professionalism” of the team who created and produced the ad. These are important details that need to be contextualised in the light of China’s official discourse on developing creative advertising, that is being promoted by the authorities to boost a national creative industry and improve the qualitative standards of advertising – also through a new system of professional accreditation.

The main substantive difference compared with the Italian ads is that the reversal of the racial transmogrification- from a black (African) man to a fair-skinned (Chinese) man. This is precisely the aggravating factor that fuelled the allegations of racism and fury online, mainly outside China. Some viewers recognised in the Qiaobi ad the distinctive features of commodity racism, a “creative strategy” that is nothing new in the West – as the infamous campaigns for Pears’ Soap in 19th Century England demonstrate.

In China though, as explained by Prof. Liu Junhai, racial sensitivity among advertisers and the public is lower than in Western countries. This race-related ad controversy is unprecedented in the country, and the rather banal reason is that the Chinese advertising world is characterised by the almost exclusive portrayal of the Han 汉 people (even though the Qiaobi ad is not the first to depict a black person).

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(Source: Youtube/ Qiaobi)

Interestingly, the black man doesn’t appear in the short version of the ad: the “innocuous” version depicting only the Chinese man and the product (unfortunately now unavailable) is actually the one that was screened on China’s satellite TV stations. The longer version gained attention when the independent photographer Benoit Florençon uploaded it on Youtube. In the light of the Chinese government’s recent campaign to clean up e-commerce and online ads (also as a response to the Wei Zexi incident), it might seem surprising that the ad was not stopped earlier.

Apparently, on 5th March this year, the brand’s Weibo account published the following soft-porn-sounding pre-campaign anticipation: “This is the story of a ‘love triangle’ between a black uncle, a little fresh meat, and a sexy goddess” (Zhe shi yi ge jiangshu hei shushu, xiao xianrou, xinggan nvshen de ‘sanjiao lian’ gushi 这是一个讲述黑叔叔、小鲜肉、性感女神的‘三角恋’故事). This teaser provides some useful clues for decoding how the protagonists have been typified (and stereotyped) in the ad. The three nicknames come from Internet slang and equally evoke some sexual connotations: hei shushu 黑叔叔 (literally: “black uncle”) is used in this context as “black daddy”; xiao xian rou 小鲜肉 indicates a young guy with fair skin and innocent looks; xinggan nüshen 性感女神 indicates a sexy woman who is beautiful and seductive.

The primary function of advertising, elementary as it sounds, is to persuade consumers to buy a certain product (or service). Nonetheless, this might be quite challenging for a relatively new, small start-up like the Shanghai-based Leishang Cosmetics Co., Ltd.: neither the company nor the Qiaobi brand are especially well known to Chinese consumers, as demonstrated by the basic questions on the product posted by prospective buyers on Baidu, the scarcity of content provided on the brand’s website, and the unimpressive number of followers of its Weibo account. As China’s laundry care market is characterized by mounting competition, the company decided to position itself through the launch of a new product: the laundry gel ball, promoted as “a healthy and trendy new experience” (jiankang shishang xin tiyan 健康时尚新体验), in contrast to traditional liquid detergents. The target audience consists of young consumers, who do their purchasing online. The word “change” (gaibian 改变) in the pay-off, therefore, should not be interpreted exclusively as linked to the racial transmogrification, but also to the new product and washing habits of the Chinese. Needless to say, the end of breaking through the market doesn’t justify the means. However, it constitutes another detail that needs to be taken into account.

Giovanna Puppin is Lecturer and Programme Director of the MA Media and Advertising, Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester. She researches Chinese advertising and promotional culture, with a focus on issues of representation, identity, and power. Picture and video: Youtube/Qiaobi.