“Black Man Tooth Paste” whitens your teeth. You see the advertising slogans on the TV and in the magazines in Singapore and Malaysia. When it comes to branding their top-selling toothpaste in Asia, the Colgate-Palmolive / Hawley & Hazel team sure packs a punch. These toothpaste makers must be the darling of top advertising agencies in Asian countries, considering their multi-million dollar advertising budgets.
For all that heavy advertising, you’d almost expect this popular toothpaste to leave a larger footprint in the Western countries and on the Web. Well, contrary to that assumption, the “Black Man Tooth Paste” is not sold in the U.S. and other countries in the West. Its online presence is limited to a stark single-page, black text announcement in Chinese language. There is not even a single picture of the best-selling toothpaste on this corporate website. Amazing, isn’t it? Zero translation text to the de-facto web language – English, and apart from one lonely “DARLIE” word amongst the Chinese characters, most web visitors wouldn’t make head or tail of the on-screen gibberish.
Gee… Doesn’t that make you wonder? I can only venture to guess that the “dark” toothpaste, while popular and deeply entrenched in Asia, isn’t something its top executives are proud of, especially in the consumer activist culture of the First World countries.
Colgate-Palmolive Company probably learnt a hard lesson in 1985 when it acquired the Hong Kong-based Hawley & Hazel Chemical Co (HK) Ltd which manufactures “Darkie” toothpaste in China. This brand, which harks back to the 1920s, is widely sold in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Hardly anybody protested against the black man logo in these regions, because there are very few black people amongst the Asian communities in the past. The portrayal of a black person with very white and shiny teeth didn’t upset racial sensitivities in this part of the world. The stereotype, while potentially offensive to colored people on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, was accepted with minimal fuss in Asia. The black and white contrast was taken at face value, to accentuate the brightening claims of the toothpaste.
Well, Colgate-Palmolive’s high-profile acquisition of the “Darkie” brand in 1985 changed all that. Cast in the spotlight, the smiling black man suddenly drew the wrath of civil and religious groups, not to mention the company’s own minority-race shareholders. Rival firm Procter & Gamble also fanned the racial uproar with clever, behind-the-scene maneuvering of the media and public opinion. The $50 million acquisition deal was a PR disaster for the Colgate-Palmolive Company, as it struggled to improve its public image in the wake of the purchase.
This “Black Man Tooth Paste” desperately needed a revamp to appease the Western population. Yet, it would be economic suicide to totally abandon the well-recognized black man logo and brand name that had a such a long history. So, a compromise was reached. Colgate-Palmolive changed a single character of the brand name, from “Darkie” to “Darlie”. The famous black man image in a tuxedo, top hat and bow tie was slightly altered to a racially-ambiguous face. The new mascot wore the same attire, but now owns a white face, with a third of it in black shadows. The new silhouette has a leaner face and a sharper nose – features that appear more Caucasian than African American. These cosmetic changes proved sufficient to appease the western world, and the matter is largely laid to rest.
Unknown to most activists though, the company had chosen to retain Chinese name for the toothpaste, in its branding strategy. So, while you won’t find the racially offensive “Black Man Tooth Paste” in an American supermarket, the toothpaste is displayed prominently in probably in the oral care section of stores throughout Asia.
Whatever it is, if you’re looking to whiten your teeth using toothpastes (whether they promote racial stereotypes like our “Darkie/Darlie” example, or other well-known brands like Crest, Colgate and Clinomyn), you’d need to do so with your eyes wide open. There are many impressive claims and hype in the multi-million dollar bright smiles industry, it is important to choose your purchase wisely. If you are too trusting of these marketing messages, your teeth will suffer the consequences. Get unbiased tooth whitening information to outsmart the profit-minded manufacturers out there.