If you go into any supermarket in China to buy toothpaste you will soon discover that one of the biggest brands on sale – if not THE biggest brand – is a toothpaste called Darlie.
Like it’s competitors, Darlie has a whole range of toothpastes, you can choose from: Double Action Protect, All Shiny White, Fresh ‘n Brite, Tea Care Mint or Hydro Fresh Gel. Something there for everyone. This unusually named brand which is virtually unknown in the west has an intriguing history. Back in the 1930s a Shanghai company developed a toothpaste which quickly became a best seller, the toothpaste was Darkie, and every tube, every box had a picture of a black man wearing a top hat with a wide – white – toothy smile. The image was apparently based on pictures of Al Jolson, and presumably it was chosen because of the contrast between dark skin and white teeth.
The company, Hawley & Hazel, moved to Taiwan and from 1949 marketed it from there until the company eventually moved to Hong Kong. As a brand ‘Darkie‘ was amazingly sucessful, with over 70% of the Asian toothpaste market, so it was no surprise that Colgate-Palmolive who manufacture most toothpastes in the West became interested, and in 1985 they paid $10 million to enter into a joint venture with Hawley & Hazel. Then it dawned on them that the brand name was not acceptable to Western sensibilities, in fact it was considered downright racist. Four years of negotiation ensued, until finally, in 1989, Darkie became Darlie, the man on the box was altered to be racially ambiguous, and so it has remained.
The irony is that under the brand name Darlie – on every tube, every box – the Chinese characters remain unaltered, 黑人牙膏, which reads ‘Black Man’s Toothpaste‘. Meanwhile others have watched the success of this brand and imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, have tried to emulate it.
A Taiwanese company has brought out a toothpaste with the name Whitemen Toothpaste (Guardian of Tooth), whereupon the manufacturers of Darlie promptly tried to sue them – and last year they lost their case, as the Judge said, you could not confuse Black Man toothpaste with Whitemen toothpaste!
The question is, does any of this matter as long as it cleans your teeth properly?