Commodity Racism in Advertising: “So Easy a Cavemn Can Do It!”

In Anne McClintock’s fifth chapter, “Soft-Soaping Empire” of Imperial Leather, she describes the role of soap in the replacement of scientific racism with commodity racism.  While scientific racism employed scientific techniques to prove the superiority of the white race over others — such as attempting to find differences of the average IQs within racial groups, or taxonomically categorizing races as if they were entirely different species – -commodity racism used white supremacy as an advertising strategy, implying that white people were superior because of the more progressive products they consumed.
The example McClintock used was Pears’ Soap.  As soap grew into a burgeoning commodity in the early nineteenth century, McClintock asserts, “Victorian cleaning rituals were peddled globally as the God-given sign of Britain’s evolutionary superiority, and soap was invested with magical, fetish powers” (McClintock, 207).  In one advertisement for Pear’s Soap, as referenced by McClintock, a black and a white child are together in a in a bathroom.  The black child is in the bathtub, and the white child, standing above him, bestows him with the gift of soap.  In the after photo, the black child emerges from the bathtub, his body cleansed and white, but his face remains black.
The message of this advertisement is that the product of soap is capable of “washing from the skin the very stigma of racial and class degeneration” (McClintock 214) and the cleansed black boy becomes the object of imperial progress.
I began thinking about examples in which commodity racism exists in modern advertisement and I remembered the Geico ad campaign in which the advertising slogan was “It’s so easy to use, a caveman can do it!”  In these commercials, a spokesperson says this slogan, and then the camera pans out to a caveman watching the commercial and then getting offended, “that is really condescending.”  In subsequent versions to the original commercial, the caveman becomes visibly more progressive, where in the original the caveman was shirtless, in later versions he is wearing a white suit, or playing tennis.
In the commercials, the caveman attempts to explain to Geico representatives that the slogan is offensive, but they fail to comprehend: “How can it be offensive if it’s true?… Historically, you guys have struggled to adapt.”  The modern characters in the commercials don’t understand that it is racist to infer that the caveman is an inferior race, because they imagine it to be a proven fact.
This ad campaign seems to be satirizing the use imperialistic advertising in the past, where marginalized races were represented as less progressive within white man’s panoptical time.  In using a caveman as the representation of the less progressive race, the link is made extremely clear that the caveman implicitly represents all races which are considered less progressive, but the caveman is a safe choice because he is extinct, so ideally no one will actually get offended.   The imperialist message still effectively comes across, however – if you buy this insurance policy, you will be more progressive!

-Robyn Brush


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