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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Most Racist Commercial Ever

I don't begin to be an authority on race relations or all things racist. After all, I'm a white guy who has a decent amount of education in a white collar job. According to the masses, making it America is right up my alley...

...however, I do have just a little expertise on the the subject of cross-culturalism having grown up in Compton and Inglewood in the early and mid-seventies and later working on Middle Eastern tourism accounts in a post-9/11 America. Talk about stereotypes...I lived inside of them! You could ask for a better sitcom setup than being the only five year-old caucasian kid in all-black Los Angeles neighborhood or the same guy as an adult rolling around downtown Damascus leading journalists on tours of the next great world destination.

Mrs. Lee's husband was some hot-shot...
Soooooooooo, one thing I can spot from a distance is a racism and racist advertising. Even in the 1970s, when no one cared about racist or sexist advertising (well, at least not enough to impact real change) I could spot these ads.

In the seventies, you couldn't turn on the television without seeing a Calgon commercial. The iconic "Take Me Away" ad, created by Ketchum Advertising, endured for decades in various forms. Take Me Away earned a spot in The Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame (yeah that's a thing). But it older advertising sibling, "Ancient Chinese Secret," earned itself a spot in the Media Guy Hall of Shame (no, that's not a thing).

“Ancient Chinese Secret” takes place in a hole-in-the-wall big city laundry run by a Chinese couple. In the '70s, Asian-Americans seemingly couldn't appear on American television unless they were serving up karate chops, walking around in the background as Chinatown gangsters or running laundries at the pleasure of the bourgeois (maybe things haven't changed much actually). The (probably) very caucasian copywriters who dreamed up “Ancient Chinese Secret” had to have lived in a world where Americans only understood Asian Americans (called then "Orientals") as people who were extremely adept at getting stains out of bell bottoms. Without a Commissioner of Logic running around checking approved copy, this beauty hit the airways:

Let's dive into this spot just a bit.

How do you get your shirts so clean, Mr. Lee?

(The flummoxed, overly caucasian customer can't seem to understand how flirty Mr. Lee can get shirts so clean.)

Ancient Chinese Secret.

(Cut to Mrs. Lee who probably works her ass off in back in a suggesting that while Mr. Lee can wear a pressed blue Brooks Brothers dress shirt, while Mrs. Lee still longs for the old country in her traditional cultural dress.)

My husband, some hot-shot. 

Here's his ancient Chinese secret: Calgon. 
Calgon's two water softeners soften wash waters so detergents clean better. 
In hardest water, Calgon helps detergents get laundry up to 30% cleaner.

(And, since Mrs. Lee couldn't possibly be smart enough to keep said Ancient Chinese Secret a secret, and ultimately keep their small business safe, she appears from the back with an empty box of Calgon.)

(yelling at husband and shaking the box in his face) 
We need more Calgon!

(to Mr. Lee in an sarcastic tone) 
Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?!

For those of you not aware of the historical significance of the Chinese Laundry, it started with the California Gold Rush of 1849. With the hope of finding gold in "those there mountains," contract laborers from Southern China scrambled to the Golden State in search fortunes in the gold mines and or working on the railroads. Soon the anti-Chinese sentiment was so strong that immigrants were forced to seek other work.

Myths debunked!
A bit of research showed that in 1851,Wah Lee opened the first US-based Chinese hand laundry in San Francisco. The small storefront in San Francisco had a simple sign: “Wash’ng and Iron’ng.” Quickly, the laundry had expanded to dozens of washermen working three daily shifts. With no special skills or venture capital required, a laundry was an ideal business for Chinese immigrants. By the 1870’s, Chinese laundries were operating in all most western cities firmly cementing the laundry guy as a stereotype that would take a century to defuse.

Chinese laundries have been used in many laundry-related product advertisements, typically in a method that exploits this stereotype. A Lavine Soap trade card showed small, cute, pig-tailed Chinese with the product. The Chinese Laundry Scene, an 1895 silent film5, featured the popular slapstick vaudeville act Robetta and Doretto as an Irish police officer and a Chinese laundry worker quarreling. One print ad for a Hoover home washing machine shows several Chinese men, presumably laundrymen, standing around it with a puzzled look. and on and on.

Back to Mr. Lee. The whole commercial was off from the start. I mean who goes to the dry cleaners simply to get shirts washed? Nobody really did that anymore in the seventies. And the whole "Ancient Chinese Secret" thing? Surely had to be wrong. Right? But month after month, year after year the spot appeared.

I've decided back then that if they could get away with that spot, then surely the ad men were some kind of wizards that had the ability to cast a spell on the nation.

The "Ancient Chinese secret, huh?" copywriter? Some hot-shot he must have been!

I mean just a few years earlier, the ad men were crafting dry punch mix commercials that sold out the supermarket with this copy:
"Let's have some thirsty, tired kids yell, 'Hey, Kool-Aid!' 
Then a huge, walking punch pitcher came crashing through a brick wall. High concept indeed. Today, there would be a public outcry that Kool-Aid was promoting wonton destruction of property. Can you imagine the picket signs, pitchforks and angry mob that would descend on Ketchum Advertising today if Mr. Lee was touting that in 2016?

Explain that one, Mr. Lee.