In the context of consumer products, culture plays a significant role in shaping differences in the development of strategies used to package and promote the products and the resulting interpretations of those methods. What sells in one region of the world may be a total marketing failure in another part, what appeals to audiences in one country could be interpreted as offensive in another. During the fall of 2013, Dunkin’ Donuts Thailand released an advertising campaign for their new product, Charcoal Donut. The ad was immediately perceived as controversial and received harsh criticism, especially internationally. In the United States, both the general population and human rights organizations called the advertisement offensive and racist and demanded Dunkin’ Donuts to apologize (Davidson, 2013). Even though companies decide what products to make available, the consumers are really the ones who guide how they are perceived — what sells, what offends, what matters. Even though in hindsight, the CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts Thailand continued to insist that there was nothing wrong with the ad and that in fact, it was a smash hit in terms of increasing sales, ultimately due to the unpopularity of this campaign internationally, Dunkin’ Donuts had to issue a public apology through their Twitter account:
The ad displayed a young woman in blackface makeup with bright pink smiling lips and a hairstyle resembling the 1950’s beehive, holding a chocolate donut in her hand. In Thai, the slogan on the ad read, “Break every rule of deliciousness”. This poster was displayed in numerous eye-catching public locations, from commuter trains to magazine pages.
Clearly, as the critics validly pointed out, there are several problematic aspects to this ad, and it raises thought-provoking questions about the way chocolate is typically marketed in general. First off, the racism evident in this ad campaign is rather blatant. The ad is drawing a connection between eating a chocolate donut and being black. The dark skin, bright pink lips, and elaborate hairstyle are referencing the American stereotypes for black people prominent in the earlier half of the 20th century, which are now perceived as offensive and racist symbols. What makes matters worse is that the woman is clearly not actually black, but rather her skin has been painted that color. If that wasn’t evident enough in the poster, Dunkin’ Donuts also released a commercial as part of this ad campaign:
In the commercial, the Asian woman takes a bite out of the Charcoal Donut, then black paint splashes everywhere, and she suddenly takes on the appearance we see in the print ad. It is obvious that that the ad’s message is that eating the donut makes the consumer more “black”. Coupled with the slogan, black in this context is being associated with rebelliousness, deliciousness, exoticism, and pleasure. Portraying chocolate as an exotic commodity is something that has been regularly done since chocolate first became a popular consumer good (Leissle, 2012; Robertson, 2009). Chocolate and black are used often to sharply contrast against white and blandness, usually drawing upon historical racial assumptions and stereotypes in the process. Advertisements create specific identities for their products and allow consumers to make statements about themselves and their social environment by consuming these goods (Robertson, 2009). This Dunkin’ ad is encouraging the idea that by consuming the Charcoal Donut, one is breaking the “normal” rules of deliciousness and taking on a whole new sensualized and exotic persona that is symbolized through the color black.
There is also a gender component to this advertisement. Starting in the 1940’s and 1950’s, advertisements started emphasizing the integral role of females in chocolate consumption and marketing directly to them. A popular message is a female character at last indulging in chocolate after resisting temptation and being so enamored and addicted to the chocolate that they lose track of all their senses (Robertson, 2009). Another popularly used character is The Modern Girl, who is displayed as a youthful and attractive consumer of all modern products spanning industries and geographical regions (Leissle, 2012). This Dunkin’ ad draws on both of these ideas to market its Charcoal Donut. By indulging in the pleasure that is brought on by eating this donut, the consumer will be just like this Modern Girl in terms of being able to release her inner “blackness” and everything it’s supposed to symbolize.
In response to this ad, we’ve created the one below:
With the takeaway message being that “deliciousness has no rules”, our ad depicts consumers of all ages, genders, and races coming together in a circle that resembles the shape of a donut. Instead of focusing on the “black”ness of the donut, our ad more heavily highlights the cohesiveness and unity implications of the product. It is marketed towards all different types of audiences, because it emphasizes how just one taste of the donut can bring people together.
Davidson, J. (2013). Dunkin’ Donuts Run Racist Charcoal Donut Ad In Thailand. AfricanGlobe.net. Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://www.africanglobe.net/headlines/dunkin-donuts-run-racist-charcoal-donut-ad-thailand/
Leissle, K. (2012). Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 24(9), 121-139.
Robertson, E. (2009). ‘A deep physical reason’: Gender, race and the nation in chocolate consumption. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 18-55). Manchester: Manchester University Press.