Korean Sociological Image #10: “Blackface”

Cyon Black and White Adverisement

Spare a thought for the hapless Cyon (싸이언) marketing department: whether by accident or design, it only gives English names to new products, and so by this stage in business it must seriously be running out of ideas.

No really, how else to explain the singularly uninspired choice of “Black and White” for the latest, well…black and white LV-7400 phones to come out? Sure, the likes of “Lollipop” and “Ice Cream” may hardly have been all that creative either, but at least they spawned quirky and memorable advertising campaigns. Whereas this series of advertisements for the LV-7400 seems dull, uninspired, and above all too literal, although in fairness they do provide a instant and dramatic representation of the product, and the commercial itself has a mild eroticism and sensuality to it that compels you to look more closely.

But of course, it wasn’t their relative lack of artistic merits made me sit up and take notice. If you haven’t already figured out why for yourself, then take a closer look:

Cyon Black and White Phone Adverisement

Cyon Black and White Adverisement Black Guy

Yes, that is indeed not a Black man, but a Caucasian man somehow painted black.

On the surface, that is just bizarre: was it really so difficult to find a genuine Black guy? No of course not, and given the extra time and effort involved it must have been a deliberate choice. But why? Good question, especially as it would have been far more logical and consistent to have also included a Black woman painted white. Without one, then it’s simply confusing more than anything else (is the “coloring” supposed to signify something or not?), albeit by no means the first time an original and/or creative concept for a Korean advertisement has had a flawed execution. But could the advertisement be construed as racist in any sense?

As an active member of the Korean blogoshere, then my first thought upon seeing the advertisements was of Michael Hurt post’s about other Korean examples of the “Blackface” phenomenon at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician here, and I broadly agree that the examples he gives are indeed offensive. Moreover, a huge multinational company like LG (of which Cyon is just the name of its mobile phone arm) would be well aware that such advertisements would probably be highly problematic in Western markets, and as such cannot claim ignorance of their racist connotations and history, a parallel of which is Coreana’s (코리아나) use of Nazi imagery in a cosmetics commercial (see Brian in Jeollanam-do here and here for more on that). Nor do I accept the argument that images that Westerners would find problematic are automatically rendered acceptable by being made by and for Koreans, a culturally-relativist argument that at the very least is patronizing to the latter: see here for the newspaper article that made me realize that back in 1999, and here for an application of its logic to the Korean context.

Girls' Generation Original Album CoverBut still, despite all that I really do think that one’s gut reaction to such advertisements should be to give the various Korean institutions, companies, and individuals behind them the benefit of the doubt. In particular, because Korean society almost completely lacks any sense of political correctness (which can be as refreshing as it is annoying), and as, for instance, the recent controversy over the use of icons of its former Japanese colonizers for Girls’ Generation’s (소녀시대) new album cover (see here and here) demonstrate, or the choice of a comfort woman theme for a series of erotic photos, many Korean companies can display a shocking ignorance of what might offend just fellow Koreans, let alone foreigners. Moreover, considering that: until as late as 2006 Korean social science textbooks stated that Korea was a homogeneous society and that *cough* this was a source of national strength (see #1 here); that a great deal of manifestations of supposedly Western culture in the music industry especially are mere imitations of domestic acts that have come before them, sans non-Koreans’ cultural baggage and angst; and finally that, in Japan at least there are:

…teenagers who used to dress up, and maybe still do, in a fashion known as Ganguro (ガングロ), which literally means “black-face.”

According to a Western video report on this phenomenon, this look does not come from people of African descent; instead, its origins are traceable to a Japanese comic’s donning of blackface in order to clown around in a loincloth in the guise of an aboriginal Australian.

Mix&Match Cyon Korean Phone AdvertisementWith influences on Korea also (again, see Michael’s post), then it’s almost surprising that offensive advertisements and so on don’t crop up more often, and perhaps demonstrate that Korean society is improving in this regard, albeit more slowly than surely (see below).

But by providing that context, I’ve possibly lost sight of what was my intended main point, which is that while intent is not the only consideration in judging such an advertisement it is still probably the most important, and accordingly I’m at a loss as to how the Cyon advertisements could be construed as a deliberate attempt to demean Black people somehow, regardless of how much offense it may or may not generate: indeed, if that was the intention, then it could certainly have been done much more directly!

On a final note though, I’m reluctant to let Cyon completely off the hook, for take its advertisement from last year for the “mix&match SH-240 series of phones on the right for instance (source). In isolation, then they’re not bad at all (sex sells after all), but again, consistent and logical would have been alternative advertisements with a Caucasian man and a Korean women getting it on also, let alone Koreans with partners of other ethnicities, and I see such a lack as both very deliberate and emblematic of the Korean media’s *cough* issues with such relationships even in 2009 (see here, here, here, and here). But that’s another blog post, albeit one which I have to write very soon as part of my preparation for this conference in August!

Update, October 17: See here for another controversial example of “contemporary blackface,” this time from the French version of Vogue magazine.

(For more posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)