Monday, January 04, 2010

The Darlie Toothpaste story

A comment from a far Eastern viewer prompted this post. I originally did it in April of last year, but it is a goodie and worth a re-post. Notice how the PC sensibilities of the West forced the name change on a guiltless populace, who acquiesced purely due to the money involved. And notice how it made no difference in any case; To the far East, Darkie is still Darkie, whatever colour you try to call it!

Darlie toothpaste is a brand of toothpaste in almost all the shopping places in Thailand. It was never available in India but has been pretty popular in South East Asia, Hong Kong and China. It has an interesting story related to its name.

Darlie (Traditional Chinese: 黑人 hēirén, or "black man") is a toothpaste brand of the Hong Kong based company Hawley & Hazel. It was bought in 1985 by the US corporation Colgate-Palmolive. At that time the original name was "Darkie". Now darky, or darkie, is a racist term used primarily in the Southern United States to refer to black people. The package featured an image of a wide-eyed, smiling dark-skinned African male wearing a top hat and tie.

Due to changing sensibilities regarding race and racism and efforts by certain interest groups, the name of the toothpaste was changed in English markets to "Darlie" after the 1985 merger. Along with the name change, the image on the packaging was altered to reflect a less stereotypical, more contemporary African male.

The name change placated Western critics, who pointed out that the toothpaste actually sold better after the name change. What they didn't know, and apparently still don't, is that only the English was changed. The Cantonese name ("Haak Yahn Nga Gou") still stayed the same, and the Chinese-language ads reassured users that, despite a cosmetic change to placate those inscrutable Westerners, "Black Man Toothpaste is still Black Man Toothpaste."

Stereotypes of this sort were not unusual before World War II. What was unusual about Darkie was that its racist name and logo were still intact in 1985 when Colgate bought the brand from the Hong Kong's Hawley & Hazel Chemical Co.

Here's where the story gets a little twisted. According to Alecia Swasy in her book Soap Opera, Colgate's arch-rival Procter & Gamble learned about the sale and immediately went to work to use it to their advantage. Both companies were releasing a tartar-control formula that year, and P&G was happy to have the opportunity to portray its rival as racist. It hired a public relations firm to surreptitiously slip information to activists and newspapers about Colgate's disreputable Asian brand.

The strategy worked. There was a storm of uproar: Stories and editorials in major newspapers, threats of boycotts, and even Eddie Murphy expressing his outrage on David Letterman. Colgate was unfairly attacked for a brand it had just purchased; however, the attacks became more and more justified as the toothpaste giant dragged its feet on changing the brand fearing a loss of business. Finally, nearly four years later, it announced that it was changing the name to Darlie and making the man on the package an abstraction of indeterminate race.


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