Just "a little artistic exaggeration" or raw racism?

An official response from China's Qiaobi laundry detergent seems, at the very least, oblivious to the harsh, worldwide criticism heaped upon the company for its advertisement that shows a black man being washed into a fairer-skinned Chinese man.

Reactions to a Qiaobi ad on Weibo (not to mention global media) are not surprising given it shows a black man being shoved into a washing machine, washed with a Qiaobi laundry bead, and tada, emerging as a fair-skinned Asian man.

Racist storyline aside, the Qiaobi ad also appears to be a blatant rip-off of a 2006 ad from Italian laundry brand Coloreria Italiana, in which a Caucasian man was turned into a black man with the slogan "coloured is better".

Campaign Asia-Pacific received a statement on Friday from Li Jun, vice president of branding at Qiaobi, which is reproduced in full:

"The creative process was meant to add a bit of delight by using a little artistic exaggeration. It was merely for comic effect; there was no intention to stir up emotions or show disrespect to other nationalities.

"Friends in the media, please understand. The creative work was completed by a different company, and we only found out later that there was an Italian work like this; I can't reveal the team/agency who did this."

The ad ran in cinemas in China, as this Weibo post appears to validate.

In an official statement released on Saturday, Qiaobi said it has taken down the advert, but also pointed the finger at the global media for drawing so much attention to it.

"We regret that our advertisement led to controversy and have no intention of shirking our responsibility. We have stopped airing the advertisement and have removed links to the offending video. We hope that internet users and the media will also stop disseminating the video," the statement said.

"The advertisement and the surrounding controversy has hurt those of African descent, and because of this we would like to apologise. We sincerely hope that internet users and the media will not continue to over-analyse the situation."

It has drawn worldwide stinging criticism both within and without the media and communications industry.

Alvin Lim, senior vice president and head of digital at HSBC Singapore, said: "Whatever the point the advertiser is trying to convey, it is poorly executed. This ad should have been banned from going out.

"It is an end-to-end failure from the brand to advertising agency to media planner to broadcaster. The loser here is the brand; the rest are laughing, albeit quietly, to the bank."

Audrey Choong, regional marketing director, at The Pacific Cigar Company, said the ad not only damages the brand but also "paints a bad picture of mainland Chinese and China in the international community".

"If it’s meant to be funny or tongue-in-cheek, it is not working at all," she added. "Well, what I can say is that if the company wants to increase its brand awareness, it has definitely achieved that, with Qiaobi becoming infamous instead of famous."

This article was first published on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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