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Carolyn Cooper | Dirty detergent ads exploit sex appeal

Published:Sunday | June 5, 2016 | 6:00 AM

A commercial for a Chinese laundry detergent has been making the rounds on social media and in legacy newspapers. It reminds me of Chris Gayle's unfortunate flirtation on TV with that Australian female journalist Mel McLaughlin. Sexual advances on the job are completely inappropriate. In the Chinese ad, the consequences are disastrous for the offender.

A black man who seems to be employed as a house painter brashly approaches a young Chinese woman who is doing laundry. He has paint on his face and all over his clothes. He's swinging a paintbrush, clearly a stand-in for his penis. Somewhat like Gayle's cricket bat. He then winks provocatively and whistles at the woman.

She appears to welcome his advances and beckons him to come closer. When he leans in for a kiss, she stuffs a detergent pod in his mouth and shoves him into the washing machine. Not quite what he expected. In sexual matters, things are not always as they appear. And appearance does matter, particularly in racist societies.

Taken by surprise, the man is an easy victim. The woman sits on the machine, posing coyly. The trapped man makes lots of noise. But she's not moved. When the cycle ends, she opens the lid and out emerges a Chinese man with a rather saintly face! He's making no sexual advances.

 

MALE FANTASY

 

The man's T-shirt is sparkling white. There's a look of post-coital bliss on the woman's face. With a twinkle in his eye, emphasised by special effects, the man winks at the woman. But what he's proposing is not sex. Instead, he offers her a detergent pod!

I would love to get a translation of the voiceover that ends the commercial. What's the intended message? All the responses to this ad that I've seen focus on the racism of the narrative. Black man locked in washing machine turned into Chinese man. All cleaned up! But there's another troubling issue that doesn't seem to be getting any attention.

The commercial appears to be a male fantasy about what women 'really' want. Not sexual pleasure, but the doubtful joys of housework! At first, the woman did seem to desire the black man. She sends a deceptive message which he falls for. But sexual transgression is a forbidden pleasure. So she repressively sanitises the black man and her own desire. What she settles for is a Chinese man telling her to get back to work. Why should she?

 

'COLOURED IS BETTER'

 

The Chinese commercial is a rip-off of an Italian ad for Coloreria detergent. This sexual script is quite different. It features an attractive white woman, doing laundry, and a scrawny white man dressed in white briefs and white socks, mid-calf. He appears to be the woman's live-in partner. He looks rather limp, presumably like the contents of his badly fitting briefs.

The man comes round a corner and coughs to attract the woman's attention. She looks at him, shakes her head in despair, and turns away. Her body language makes it absolutely clear that this man is totally unattractive. She does turn back to look at him in disbelief and, with typical macho vanity, he assumes it's desire. With a smug hand gesture, he presents himself as a grand prize.

Pretending to want him, the woman lures him over to the machine, embraces him and promptly dumps him in. When this wash cycle ends, a buff black man emerges in all his muscled glory. The woman is ecstatic. To the sound of the hip hop lyrics, "abs looking like you do a thousand sit-ups", the tag line for the ad appears. "Coloured is Better."

By the way, a thousand sit-ups won't give you that flat belly, as my brilliant trainer Jennifer Exell will tell you. Sit-ups strengthen abdominal muscles. But they can't get rid of the stubborn layer of fat sitting on top. It's cardiovascular exercise that will. A big shout-out to Jennifer and the JMMB gym posse, my adopted family! I wish more employers would realise that investing in the physical fitness of their staff pays huge dividends.

 

JUST AS RACIST

 

The Italian ad is just as racist as the Chinese. But I much prefer its message. Women shouldn't have to settle for flab when there are exciting, muscular alternatives. Then there's an amusing equal-opportunity version of the Coloreria ad. A white woman doing laundry notices her tired-looking white male partner reading a porn magazine with a busty black woman on the cover. She pulls him by the ear to the washing machine, grabs the magazine and throws it on the floor.

He takes a longing look at the magazine. Raising his eyebrows, he decisively grabs the woman and dumps her in the machine. Rubbing his hands in glee, he sits on the machine, waiting for his fantasy black woman to appear. In a queer twist, out emerges our muscular black man! The white man retreats. The black man blows a noisy kiss. The white man blinks, apparently not trusting his eyes.

In the Italian ads, the black body is the preferred sex object. Is this just racial exploitation plain and simple? Or is sex the primal social leveller, toppling racial barriers? Even the Chinese ad might very well be a sign that apparent disgust can actually conceal unruly desire. And that's not so easily washed away!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.