World

The advert that reveals China's problem with race

16 September 2020

4:39 PM

16 September 2020

4:39 PM

After the Hong Kong protests, America’s Black Lives Matter protests were like manna from heaven for Beijing. Now Chinese politicians could point the finger at the US as its own house was in disarray. Take just one example, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying:

“I can’t breathe.” pic.twitter.com/UXHgXMT0lk

— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) May 30, 2020

But China’s own problems with race leave the country open to allegations of hypocrisy. It wasn’t long ago that a Chinese laundry detergent advert had to be pulled because it showed a black man becoming Asian after being put in the washing machine (no, really).

This week, perfumer Jo Malone has had to apologise for excising black actor John Boyega from the Chinese version of its latest ad campaign. Directed by Boyega, the ‘London gent’ campaign is a celebration of Peckham, where the actor grew up, his Nigerian heritage, and how far he has come. It was an advert with heart.


So it’s little surprise that Boyega angrily resigned from his role as brand ambassador after seeing the Chinese version. The ad was replicated shot by shot for the Chinese market, but Boyega was replaced by a Chinese star – his family and friends cut from the video.

racism from Jo Malone. Not only did they replace @JohnBoyega, they ripped off his creative ideas and reshot his original film virtually shot-for-shot for the Chinese market.
Edit: Original left – #johnboyega #jomalone #racism #China pic.twitter.com/mWP0qqY9aR

— 🥃🥃🥃 (@WizzCEO) September 14, 2020

Charitably, one might point to the fact that the Chinese actor in question, Liu Haoran, is a teen heartthrob with 30 million Weibo followers, so the move made commercial sense in the Chinese market.

But it’s backfired, with even Chinese social media largely critical of the company for its brazen plagiarism of a personal story. For my part, I’m disappointed that Jo Malone missed the opportunity to create an equally stirring campaign with China as the basis. Why not take Boyega’s conceit as inspiration, and start afresh with Beijing streets, and Liu Haoran’s own story?

Whether or not the decision was racially motivated, Jo Malone was right to apologise. I’m sure it won’t be long until Ms Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wades in with her own condemnation of black erasure.

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