Commodity racism targets an audience by using the human body to sell a product. The ideology of race was a way to legitimize slavery and imperialism. Advertisements were able to exploit ‘the others’ or the primitive peoples as a vehicle to sell products. The primitive were illiterate, dependent upon the natural world rather than the masters of it, and lacking in complex social institution and mechanical technology. Where as the civilized were highly literate, Christian, developed technology, controlled nature, and brought the blessing of civilization to the heathen and to the primitive.
It has become clear that the commodity racism has the intended audience buying the dominant ideology along with the commodity. In the article “Soft-soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising” by Anne McClintock, McClintock discusses the growth of the commodity from a mundane object in the eighteenth century to its privileged place in the nineteenth centuries new industrial economy. She examines commodity racism and its relationship with imperial progress. Commodity racism — in the specifically Victorian forms of advertising and commodity spectacle, the imperial Expositions and the museum movement — converted the imperial progress narrative into mass-produced consumer spectacles. ” McClintock looks at the intention of commodity racism in the later decades of the nineteenth century. She explores the production, the marketing, and the distribution of evolutionary racism combined with imperial power on a large scale.
McClintock uses the example of soap as a commodity. Soap had not been used largely before the nineteenth century but had become abundant by the 1890’s(Victorians said to have consumed 260,000 tons of soap a year). Advertising was now the ‘cultural form of commodity capitalism. ’ Soap advertising began to offer imperial progress as the spectacle. The Pears’ soap company was associated with a purified nature that was magically cleansed of polluting industry aimed at a purified working class. Soap offered the promise of spiritual salvation and regeneration through commodity consumption, a regime of domestic hygiene that could restore the threatened potency of the imperial body politic and the race. ” The allure of soap was that it could cleanse and rejuvenate you from ‘impurities. ‘ In one Pears’ ad a black child sits together with a white child in a bathroom in the first frame of the advertisement. In the second frame, the white child is showing the black child’s magically transformed white body in the mirror.
However, his head has remained stubbornly black. In this example, the referent is the assumption of imperialism. The idea is that the cleanliness of the soap will wash the black off the boy enough so that he thinks he is white. The consumer is being told, its better to be white. In imperial iconography, black figures were viewed as spectacles from the exhibition of the commodity. Colonial travel writers, traders, missionaries, and bureaucrats had continuously depicted African’s as dirty and undomesticated.
The soap advertisements depicting the ‘before and after’ transformations were not only selling soap or bleach but a dominant ideology symbolizing imperial progress. In an ad for Chlorinol Soda Bleach, three boys are pictured in a soda box sailing in the ocean. The image contains two black boys pictured proudly holding boxes of Chlorinol. The third boy undoubtedly has already used the Chlorinol bleach because his skin is a distinct white. The sail of soda box reads ‘We are Going to Use “Chlorinol” and be like De White Nigger. In this add, the commodity is not directed towards the characters in the add because clothing bleach is not used by three naked children. The adds value lies in the fact it is a symbol of imperial progress. “The black children simply have exhibition value as potential consumers of the commodity, there only to uphold the promise of capitalist commerce and to represent how far the white child has evolved — in the iconography of Victorian racism, the condition of ‘savagery’ is identical to the condition of infancy. ”  The Chlorinol add displaces a social value to women’s household work on in the commodities message.
McClintock believed the magical fetish of soap was that commodity can regenerate by washing the stigmas of racial and class degeneration. These ‘before and after’ advertisements message was not promoting the power, capabilities, and or characteristics of the products but of an imperial ideology signifying the superiority of the West and white over black. In the 1988 documentary film “Cannibal Tours” by Dennis O’Rourke cameras follow rich European and American tourists on a luxury cruise up the Sepik River, in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
The movie is a representation of Westerners fascination with the exotic and the primitive other. The natives and tourists are interviewed throughout the movie, both showing a common misunderstanding for each other. O’Rourke exploits the tourists lack of knowledge of the native people of New Guinea and their effect on them. The cameras capture confused natives as they attempt to bargain prices for the goods they make and sell for money. The natives have developed a system where the offer a first price, second price, and a third price.
One of the German tourists comments that the New Guineans do not know the value of money but their fine workmanship justifies the asking price. He feels that he is doing the natives a favor by interacting and buying their goods. O’Rourke exposes the Westerners fascination with sex and the primitive people. The tourists are enticed by the sexual bravado of the people of New Guinea. I believe O’Rourke uses sex as a way of connecting the tourists and the natives. There are several instances where sexual comments are made by the tourists.
In one case, a tourist asks a native, “How many wives do you have? ” Here, the tourist has made the assumption that the man has more than one. In another shot, one women has purchases several wood carvings of mens genitals. O’Rourke is clearly drawing the similarities of both worlds while eluding to the Westerners fascination of sex and primitivism. It becomes apparent that commodity racism is attracting the consumer to a product along with a dominant ideology. Anne McClintock uses the commodity of soap in the nineteenth century as an example of a product showing imperial progress.
The notion of blacks being dirty and undomesticated led to their use in the soap advertising. Where as soap was thought of being pure in nature. These ads depicted whites as clean and blacks as dirty. Often, the product was able to change the skin color of the black figure. O’Rourke exposes the relationship of the tourists and their fascination for the primitive other. The common misunderstanding is demonstrated by both groups interactions and interviews. It is another look at the role of racism and the imperial ideology.