The Charcoal Donut: Race and Gender in Asian Chocolate Advertising

The Dunkin' Donuts advert in full. Photograph: Dunkin' Donuts/Facebook
The Dunkin’ Donuts advert in full. Photograph: Dunkin’ Donuts/Facebook

 “We’re not allowed to use black to promote our donuts? I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white? Would that be racist?”

-Nadim Salhani, CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts Thailand

The original advertisement I chose for this assignment was a 2013 Thai poster promoting the “Charcoal Donut” by Dunkin Donuts, a chocolate cake covered in a chocolate glaze. The Charcoal Donut campaign features a young woman painted in black-face with a stereotypical 1950s beehive hairstyle and emphasized pink lips. The model, baring naked shoulders, is holding the product. In Thai, the slogan reads “Break every rule of deliciousness” (Gabott).

The advertisement is particularly disturbing because of the representation of race to promote the product. The black-face model is used as a metaphor for the chocolate, colored the same dark shade in the poster. Additionally, the name of the product, the “Charcoal Donut” suggests association with dirtiness and soot. Nadim Salhani, the CEO of Dunkin Donuts Thailand, defended the campaign, questioning “We’re not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss?” (Babbatt). The “big fuss” is the dark past of chocolate,“deeply interwoven with the history of imperial exploitation of non-white peoples” (Robertson 172). Controversy over juxtaposing chocolate and colored people in advertising is not about color as a metaphor; the racial and historical implications are problematic, especially given the geographic placement of the ad. While such a campaign would cause “howls of outrage” in the US”,  questionable racial attitudes are widespread in Thailand, where 28% of the population would disapprove of having neighbors of a different race (Purnell). Discussing chocolate advertising in the European market, Emma Robertson writes “European racialized imaginings of cocoa are not pure coincidence; they are evidence of a shared history of European colonial exploitation…and of the complicated intertextuality of white western racist popular culture” (Robertson 180). A similar attitude holds true in Thai popular culture, where products like Unilever’s Citra Pearly White UV body lotion and Black Man household mops are commonplace (Purnell). Most concerning, such a campaign would incite public backlash and boycott of the responsible company in the US. In Thailand, sales for the Charcoal donut increased about 50% within two weeks of the campaign being launched (Gecker).

An event advertising the Charcoal Donut from Dunkin Donuts in Thailand
An event advertising the Charcoal Donut from Dunkin Donuts in Thailand

Gender and sexuality are also themes in this advertisement. The young woman in the poster is being sexualized with dramatic hair, pink, exaggerated lips curled in a closed seductive smile and completely bare shoulders. This portrayal combined with the racial representation contributes to an imperial fetishization of women of color. The slogan, “Break every rule of deliciousness” accompanies this theme. This shows a common trend amongst women in chocolate advertising, “long-standing associations with female sexuality” (Robertson 30). Originally portrayed as mothers and housewives, women in chocolate advertising have evolved to young, attractive, scantily-dressed female characters “obsessed by the product” who “project their hetreosexual yearnings and fantasies on chocolate consumption” (Robertson 35). Even if the advertisement features female characters, the “commentary to the advert takes on masculine tone of rationality and paternalism”, similar to the Dunkin Donuts ad (Robertson 33).

For my advertisement, I made a “white” version of the same controversial donut ad, substituting the black-face model with a white woman and the chocolate donut with a vanilla donut. I renamed the product the “Ivory Donut”. This advertisement posed new concerns regarding race and gender in advertising.

Advertisement for the "Ivory Donut"
Advertisement for the “Ivory Donut”

The faux “Ivory Donut” had racist undertones even though the ad did not include a colored model or reference colored people. The light skin of the model would be used as a metaphor for a product portrayed as light, delectable, fun and sweet. The new name, the “Ivory Donut” would also indicate “whiteness” but also luxury, purity and wealth. Additionally, I believe that this advertisement would be problematic in the Thai market because it would be promoting Western constraints of beauty in a society that struggles with race relations and glorifies fair-skinned people (Gecker). The new poster also incorporates female sexuality and the feminine obsession with desserts; this donut also has a bite taken out of it, as if the woman could not control her urge and ate it.

I believe these ads represent a new trend in the role of race and gender in chocolate and dessert advertising, especially in the Asian market. Perhaps the blatant racism of the ad would not be tolerated in the United States but the inappropriate representation of race and gender seems international. However, I believe more ads like this will appear in Thailand other Asian countries given their society’s glorification of Western beauty, widespread racial discrimination and fairly new and experimental chocolate market.

Race is often incorporated into Thai advertising
Race is often incorporated into Thai advertising
Works Cited
Gabbatt, Adam. “Dunkin’ Donuts Apologises for ‘bizarre and Racist’ Thai Advert.” The Guardian. N.p., 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
GECKER, By JOCELYN. “Dunkin’ Donuts Apologizes for Blackface Advert.” AP Online. Associated Press, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
Purnell, Newley. “Images Spark Racism Debate in Thailand.” The New Yorker 31 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Print.
Robertson, Emma. “Chocolate Consumption.” Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. 1-31. Print.
Robertson, Emma, Michael Pickering, Anandi Ramamurthy, and Wulf D. Hund. Bittersweet Temptations: Race and the Advertising of CocoaColonial Advertising & Commodity Racism. N.p.: n.p., 2013. 171-96. Print.
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