Colgate reviews branding for its 'Black Person Toothpaste' in Asia
Colgate-Palmolive Co. is “reviewing” its branding of Darlie toothpaste in Asia, 30 years after the company took the half-step of changing the name from “Darkie” but left “Black Person Toothpaste” written in Chinese on packaging.
People in the U.S. may know little about it, but Darlie is the leading toothpaste brand in China and much of East Asia. Colgate Chairman-CEO Noel Wallace noted with pride in May that it had retaken the No. 1 slot in the Chinese toothpaste market last quarter.
Colgate in the U.S. didn’t respond to requests for comment, though a spokeswoman confirmed the branding review. The Hong Kong Free Press reported the move earlier today, citing a Colgate spokesman saying the company is working with joint-venture partner Hawley & Hazel Co. to make unspecified “substantial” changes to the name, logo and packaging.
Colgate issued a statement confirming the branding review. "Darlie is a Chinese brand owned by Colgate and our Joint Venture Partner, Hawley & Hazel. For more than 35 years, we have been working together to evolve the brand, including substantial changes to the name, logo and packaging," said the company. "We are currently working with our partner to review and further evolve all aspects of the brand, including the brand name."
In 1985, Colgate bought a 50 percent stake, which it retains, in Hawley & Hazel, the then Hong Kong-based firm that launched Darkie toothpaste in 1933 with a brand icon that resembled Al Jolson in blackface.
After nearly five years of pressure, including the Congressional Black Caucus threatening to lead a boycott, Colgate got Hawley & Hazel to change the name to Darlie and the icon to a more racially ambiguous man in the same top hat. But the Chinese name “Black Man Toothpaste” remained, too, and one Cantonese commercial announcing the change in 1990 noted that “Black Person Toothpaste is still Black Person Toothpaste.”
The Chinese characters don’t appear in some markets where Darlie is sold, including Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. But they remain on packaging in China and Taiwan. Some recent Darlie ads in Taiwan have shown a Chinese man donning the top hat as admiring women look on.
The company has come under fairly constant criticism over the years, primarily outside those markets or from visitors who discover Darlie there and are shocked to learn about its history and what those Chinese characters mean.
The 2004 mockumentary “C.S.A.: Confederate States of America,” about a fictionalized world in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, includes a fake ad for Darkie toothpaste. Colgate never expanded it outside Asia in reality, though Darlie can be bought on Amazon.