Racist? Yes or no? Vote!

An oddly racist commercial, or just bizarre? You be the judge:


  1. #1 Emp
    December 27, 2008

    I thought the commercial was going to be anti-racism until the slogan at the end. Now I’m not so sure. It would have been more appropriate if the man whose appearance was “deceiving” actually looked like a dangerous criminal instead of an ordinary young man.

  2. #2 DrCogSci
    December 27, 2008

    This could plausibly be considered a commentary on racism I guess, but anytime you take something for granted in these things it always opens up multiple interpretations…

    Definitely weird tho!

  3. #3 Annapolitan
    December 27, 2008

    “Don’t let the color of someone/something put you off” appears to be anti-racist message. But comparing a black man to a dark-colored toothpaste…?

    My white liberal guilt votes “bizarre.”

  4. #4 Martin
    December 27, 2008

    Where is the commercial from? It would be helpful to know whether it’s referring to a cultural bias regarding black people, a cultural distrust of unaccompanied young men, or a cultural perception of “anyone who isn’t one of us.”

    The comparison of a black man to black toothpaste doesn’t strike me a racist. He lies down on this funny looking bed, and the image morphs into a shot of the product on a toothbrush. Visually, it works quite well.

    Overall, the commercial doesn’t seem to be endorsing racism any more than a McDonald’s commercial featuring a black hip-hop dancer is endorsing racism. It’s playing on several cultural stereotypes – the trusting little girl, her overprotective (and probably biased) mother, the misunderstood good guy.

  5. #5 Martin
    December 27, 2008

    Addendum – I don’t think this commercial would hold up to scrutiny in the U.S. It hits too close to home, for too many people, on too many levels.

  6. #6 6EQUJ5
    December 27, 2008

    The mother’s reaction would have been the same if the man had been white, or seventeen, or seventy. The media have for years been demonizing adult male strangers as inherently dangerous to children, drawing attention away from the fact that the greatest danger to the child comes from the family, and the next greatest is friends and neighbors, both groups of which are known to the child.

    Had the pole climber been a woman, of any color, young or old, the mother’s reaction would be taken as crazy.

  7. #7 george.w
    December 27, 2008

    People are used to toothpaste being white or light green or light blue. That’s probably what they’re getting at. It sounds anti-racist if anything (unless you count the stereotype of Asians distrusting blacks).

  8. #8 haris
    December 27, 2008

    It sounds like it’s from Thailand. I don’t know about you guys but the balloons stuck to the black guy’s ceiling was creepy.

  9. #9 cwfong
    December 27, 2008

    The commercial is designed to make the deniers of their own racism suppress any feelings that the person with the off colored balloon collection may be hiding tendencies often attributed to racists of all stripes. So in the end it exploits existing racism, and does little to decry such exploitation. And the result is that it fails as a commercial – because the message is mixed and leaves one still uneasy about the nature of a black toothpaste.

  10. #10 Brian X
    December 27, 2008

    I wouldn’t call it racist per se, but the message comes off as very strange because it’s a toothpaste commercial trying to be profound. It reminds me in a way of a joke I once heard about bowling balls — the butt of the joke is a redneck cop, but it still would hit the wrong way in multiracial company.

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing. It certainly wouldn’t fly in the US.

  11. #11 The Ridger
    December 27, 2008

    I don’t know – the message is that the young man is sweet and a bit sad and misunderstood by the mother *even though* he’s black. And so the toothpaste will be good, even though *it’s* black.

  12. #12 colmcq
    December 27, 2008

    not racist…not racist…bit racist…oooh not racist……oh, hang on ….that was racist.

  13. #13 Matt Platte
    December 27, 2008

    I’ve seen this vid before, but with a different social outcast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IjUkNmUcHc

  14. #14 Ed Yong
    December 27, 2008

    Amusingly an ad for a new TV series popped up at the bottom of the player which read “DARK FORCES ARE RISING”, “DON’T GET LEFT IN THE DARK” and finally “DEMONS”.

    The two ads combined are *definitely* racist 😉

  15. #15 Varn
    December 27, 2008

    I see an ad who aims (and succeeds, in my case) to make an impression.

  16. #16 Joe
    December 27, 2008

    Racism has been on my mind for a long time. I once participated in a large, peaceful demonstration in opposition to it in Newark, NJ. That was April, 1968; and it became a memorial for Martin Luther King.

    I did not find the tone of the video racist, except that the mother-figure may have had such feelings and been shown a fool for it.

    Perhaps using the spectre of racism to sell a product is in bad taste, I dunno; I am not a philosopher. I do note, we have had great movies that played off the injustice of racism to good effect (“Sounder,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Lilies of the Field” come to mind).

    For those who think it racist, please tell me why. Ed Yong, I see you refer to other content that I have not reviewed.

  17. #17 Bob O'H
    December 27, 2008

    The ending is, I guess, ambiguous. Te advert wouldn’t be shown in the UK like this, I’m sure, for fear of being seen as racist. But for where it’s shown (Thailand?), I don’t know – I know nothing of the cultural context. That’s important for the ad – it may be that in its own context it’s neutral or entirely positive.

  18. #18 raindogzilla
    December 27, 2008

    What if the black man had been dressed as a priest?

  19. #19 Art
    December 27, 2008

    Message is pretty simple: Don’t let the color of something, or someone, put you off to the good that it, they, can do.

    If you were charged with having to sell a toothpaste that had an odd color the message works. And yes, it has broad anti-racist overtones.

    Perhaps mildly racist overtones in that the guy climbs a pole that resembles a large urbanized tree but not so much. The black fella strikes me as a kind, sympathetic and positive figure who was willing to go far out of his way to help a child and, given the number of balloons, has done so many times in the past.

    The female, presumably the mother, is presented as a racist shrew who overlooks the kindness that was done.

  20. #20 rogue medic
    December 27, 2008

    This is advertising. There are some advertisements that take an idea and, even though the idea is not really relevant, make the idea seem relevant to the product.

    This ad just does not work. Does it demonstrate racism? How would I know what is going through the minds of all of the people involved in the production of this ad? The answer to this question probably has more to do with the person viewing the ad, than those creating it.

    Advertising is manipulative. To expect otherwise is naive.

  21. #21 Martin
    December 27, 2008


    I don’t think it’s racist. I think what happened is that their toothpaste is black, which is rather odd for toothpaste, and so they decided to use the whole “don’t judge something by the colour” idea for their add as a kind of post-modern ironic comment that ultimately failed because their advert is shit and their toothpaste looks like what I just flushed down the toilet.

  22. #22 cwfong
    December 27, 2008

    If you were black you might see this as a fable of the ape man climbing a pole to fetch lost items for children of many other races (hence the many colored balloons on the wall), whose good intentions were inevitably met with suspicion and contempt. The message being that a thing that’s black on the outside is not necessarily black on the inside. The subtext being that inferiority may only be skin deep. The balm of many a racist mindset perhaps.

  23. #23 Phil
    December 27, 2008

    It’s from Thailand. Since there are no black people in Thailand, you can guess where they get their perceptions from. Having said that, there is no automatic assumption of wrongdoing or crime associated with being black in Thailand. Likewise, climbing a coconut tree in that manner is very common, I’ve seen it, it’s not linked to blacks at all. Why the character is black is providing a link with the toothpaste. Racism as you know it is not prevalent in Thailand. There is an anti-Muslim and anti-Chinese animus but the black african dynamic as Americans know it is practically zero. What perceptions Thais have is from American media and students who have studied in America-namely that all blacks play sports and sing.
    I would say this is not a politically correct ad, but you’re talking a society which still speaks in broad stereotypes on TV. (I should know, my family is Thai and we get Thai TV).

  24. #24 tim gueguen
    December 27, 2008

    As I just finished reading the responses Windows Media Player randomly popped up “Holiday in Bangkok” by Rational Youth.

  25. #25 cicely
    December 27, 2008

    I don’t think it is racist, but I think it’s using the fact of racism, and peoples’ desire not to seem racist, as a way of manipulating them into buying the (black) toothpaste. “If you aren’t racist, then you shouldn’t have a problem with trying our (black) toothpaste; if you do have a problem with trying our toothpaste, why then, you must be racist. And if you don’t want to seem to be racist, then you must try our toothpaste, especially because it is black.”

  26. #26 DLC
    December 27, 2008

    It’s bizarre, and vaguely racist.

  27. #27 Enkidu
    December 27, 2008

    I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt . . . they could have been aiming for “don’t listen to your preconceptions, keep your mind open” feeling. And not knowing where it’s from or what the cultural history of that county is, I’d keep my pitchfork and torch in the closet for another day.

  28. #28 Isaac
    December 27, 2008

    Controversial undertones in order to market a product is a cheap and archaic tactic – yet very effective. Such a commercial though clearly should not be in this forum for science though.

    This is clearly a commercial that uses an undertone of racism to sell their product. This can be interpreted as a commercial for tolerance, understanding, and not to be prejudice against “Blacks”. It could be perceived as the common African/Monkey racial reference, as he climbs the pole. Or it could be perceived that he is a product/object as he lies on the giant toothbrush to be used.

    From my conditioned experience – racism is often masked in undertones of social loopholes of etiquette, and the commercial sparked some familiar emotions attributed with it.

    But this experience is uniquely American for me as abroad in different cultures it is not as heavy of a subject. There are some things such as the Mexican “Negrito” (Small “Black” Boy) Chocolate Cakes – which are small and brown. This is seen as not as racist as it is descriptive. It really depends on the societal views on the subject.

  29. #29 RickD
    December 27, 2008

    “The mother’s reaction would have been the same if the man had been white, or seventeen, or seventy. The media have for years been demonizing adult male strangers as inherently dangerous to children, drawing attention away from the fact that the greatest danger to the child comes from the family, and the next greatest is friends and neighbors, both groups of which are known to the child.”

    You’re saying there isn’t a racial component to stranger fear?

    Uh, OK. Don’t know what country you’re from, but the situation you describe resembles in no way the country I grew up in.

  30. #30 Pieter B
    December 28, 2008

    The adult male stranger fear is the theme of another video you can find on YouTube, Paul Stookey’s Talking Candy Bar Blues. Yes, the fear is magnified by race, but it’s separate from race.

  31. #31 Steve Page
    December 28, 2008

    I think it’s bizarre, but not deliberately racist; it merely contains a prejudiced reaction from the mother, but the overall message seems to be, as others have said, that appearances can be misleading. However, I would like to point this out to all of those who have said that the advert just doesn’t work; it’s being blogged about, discussed by people who were never aware of it, and, given the nature of teh interwebs, will probably go viral, exposing it to millions of potential consumers. That sounds like a pretty effective ad to me. 🙂

  32. #32 notmercury
    December 28, 2008

    It might seem racist if a white maintenance worker came along and lowered the entire lamp assembly using the internal cable and pulley system instead of climbing the pole.

  33. #33 cwfong
    December 28, 2008

    To the silly person who opined that there’s no racism in Thailand where blacks are concerned, it needs to be pointed out that the commercial then would have made no reference to the variously colored balloons on the black boy’s wall. And yes, he’s depicted as a boy, not a man, so the adult male stranger message wasn’t really there either – and again the balloons belie that intent as well.

  34. #34 Richard Eis
    December 28, 2008

    The point of this commercial is “don’t judge something by it’s colour…even if others have.”

    It plays on and uses racist fears but is in itself harmless.

  35. #35 cwfong
    December 28, 2008

    The ends justify the means?

  36. #36 misseclectic
    December 28, 2008

    Ugh. It has a weird self-congratulatory “look at us nice, non-racist people” with no positive outcome for the guy. And the way they made the guy act… looking mopey and climbing the pole and all that… felt caricatural.

    And yeah, I’m Thai, my family is Thai and whoever said Thai people have no bias towards black people makes me laugh. There is a huge bias against darker-skinned people in general, though that may be due to the whole notion of dark skin = work on farms (on Thai soap operas, servants are dark-skinned and mostly stupid. The protagonists are fair-skinned and “smart”, as smart as soap opera characters can be I guess). Anyways, my point is, Thai people have prejudices just like in any other country.

  37. #37 Ryan Cunningham
    December 29, 2008

    Simple, mute black man climbing like a monkey? Yea. I’m going with racist.

  38. #38 Rogue Epidemiologist
    December 29, 2008

    Wow, lots of Thais lurking in this blog. I’m Thai, too. Hey Thai folks, don’t you remember Darkie brand toothpaste??? It was made by Colgate and the packaging featured a caricature of a black man in a top hat sporting a 100-Watt smile. They renamed the product “Darlie” and changed the packaging in the early 1990’s.

    The climbing is not to suggest “monkey,” btw. That’s just how you climb a coconut tree, or an equally smooth pole.

    As for Thai people getting along with black people, that which is unfamiliar is generally feared (as a universal heuristic). My parents never encountered black people until they moved to America, and they moved to Chicago. That was almost 40 years ago. To this day, my mother is afraid of black people.

  39. #39 Jon H
    December 30, 2008

    The black guy-morphs-into-toothpaste blob was overkill, and probably due to someone wanting to show off his FX skillz.

    But, since it does *directly* link the black guy to the product which buyers will put in their mouth, it strongly suggests that the viewer is supposed to look favorably/sympathetically on the black guy. The message they’re trying to get across is that their product has often been baselessly discriminated against due to its appearance, despite being helpful, much as the black man was.

    Making the black guy look bad to the viewer would make as little sense as if Burger King made an ad where a shit sandwich morphs into a Whopper.

    So, no, I don’t think it’s being racist. Just a bit ham-handed. Racist would be if the little girl had been ‘saved’ from the black guy by a helpful anthropomorphized tube of toothpaste and the black guy morphed into a cavity creep.

  40. #40 cwfong
    December 31, 2008

    Yeah, and step and fetch it is simply impolite.

  41. #41 Rolf Marvin Bøe Lindgren
    January 2, 2009

    This commercial is almost totally brilliant.

    It plays on stereotypes. Everybody expects the mother’s reaction to the man as an unjust stereotypical reaction to his color. Indeed, he is a nice guy who goes to great lengths to unselfishly help a damsel in distress. I laughed a lot, anyway.

    As with all humor, it breaks down when analyzed: If his breath is so terrible, why doesn’t the girl react to it? She probably has even a more delicate sense of smell than her mother.

  42. #42 David Harmon
    January 2, 2009

    It surely references racism, but I wouldn’t say it’s racist in itself. Kinda sweet, really. But hey, let’s see what Field Negro‘s crowd thinks…

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