The ad is so brazenly racist that it delivers a visceral shock.
A young Chinese woman is doing laundry. A young black man appears in the doorway, his face and white T-shirt smudged with paint. He gives the woman a classic wolf whistle, and winks. She gestures suggestively; he approaches, and leans in for a kiss. Then she pops a Qiaobi brand laundry detergent pod in his mouth, and shoves him in the washing machine.
Moments later, he emerges as a fair-skinned Chinese man. She looks delighted. "Change, it all starts from Qiaobi laundry detergent pod," says a voiceover.
The ad spread on social media in China and abroad this week, sparking an online conversation about whether the largely homogenous country — 92% of its population is ethnic Han — does indeed have a racism problem. (China is officially home to 55 ethnic minority groups, but most are visibly indistinguishable from the Han.)
A sales agent for Qiaobi, who declined to give her name as she was not an official spokesperson, rejected accusations of racism, claiming that the ad was "kind of fun." She said that it has been airing on local television stations since January.
"Why did foreigners say that [the ad was racist]?" said the agent, who is based in southeastern China's Jiangsu province. "We only paid attention to the product itself. We didn't even notice [the racial angle]. It's only an artistic exaggeration."
The ad had limited resonance on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblog; related posts received at most a few dozen comments and shares. Yet most of those commenters and sharers seemed to generally agree that the ad was problematic.
"This is too awkward," wrote one. "This could only happen with Chinese companies, who are the least sensitive towards racism."
"The advertisement should go like this," joked another. "Put this Asian boy into the washing machine, and then have a white guy pop up. Remove the stain without leaving any residue."
The commercial is clearly derived from a 9-year-old Italian laundry detergent ad, in which a woman throws a hirsute Caucasian into a washing machine and he emerges as a strapping black man. "Colored is better," runs that commercial's slogan. (Even the background music for the two commercials — a bouncy accordion tune — is the same).
Many people in China perceive white skin as a standard of beauty; they equate dark skin with farmers and laborers, a sign of spending too much time in the sun. Stereotypes about black people remain widespread, perhaps the result of crass media portrayals. (Black communities in China are few and far between).
"White Americans face no barriers to claiming their nationality, but blacks are often assumed to hail from Africa, a place thought more backwards and poorer than China, more than likely receiving Chinese government economic aid in the form of loans and infrastructure projects," wrote Marketus Presswood, a black American who has lived in China, in a 2013 essay for the Atlantic. "This leads to either resentment or denigration on the part of some Chinese."
Many Weibo users, upon seeing the commercial, wondered what all the fuss was about.
"Actually it's racist to take skin color into account," wrote one. "A non-racist person would only take it as a joke, just like black and white T-shirts having the same price."
"Only white people can be racists, because Asians never enslaved blacks," wrote another.
Yingzhi Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.