Commodity Racism: The Colonial History of Branding

Commodity Racism and the Civilizing Mission.

Since the late 19th century, brands have aggressively demonstrated their ability to invade all levels of society.  As a dynamic form of media, they’ve become a platform for mass communication which speaks through the universal language of symbols.  Notably, ‘branding’ is considered to be the the process of attaching ideas to products.  And with this, the rise of branding marked a shift from viewing products as functions, to viewing them as communicative symbols.

So it makes sense that when Britain found itself needing to justify colonialism and reinforce imperial ideologies, it was brand advertisements that they chose to use to spread these messages.

Although the vast majority of people are unaware today, branding and imperialism have long been intertwined.  As early as the nineteenth century, nationalist and imperial themes were embedded into the packaging and design of branded goods. Subsequently, opportunities to promote products became opportunities to promote Empire.

“Power needs a discourse to exercise its authority, to justify itself, to universalize its values and to legitimize its doing” - Kornberger.  And with this need, the discourse of the 'Civilising Mission' was born.  This Civilizing Mission was an attempt to rewrite the horror that was colonialism and reframe its corruption as a moral obligation to civilize the 'dark savages' of the world.  And the branding of packaged goods provided the Empire with a platform to communicate this message to the masses in a way that could truly 'universalise its values' and 'legitimize its doing'.  

Subsequently, racism became embedded into the branding of commercial goods as a way of supporting the civilizing mission.  This process is formally known as 'commodity racism'.  

Imperialism & The Civilizing Mission

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To paint the killing, enslavement and subjugation of a particular ethnic group as an act of morality, requires an elaborate form of creative framing.  But this was a feat that the British Empire sought to achieve through the idea of the 'Civilizing Mission'.  In essence, the Civilizing Mission was developed to communicate colonialism as being a gift.  It depicted the 'white man' as belonging to the superior race who were subsequently burdened with the moral obligation to civilize the 'others'.  This meant that the colonized were no longer allowed to be victims.  Instead they were to be seen as the recipients of a gift.  And for their own good, the freedom to refuse this gift was not permitted.  

Commodity Racism


In the nineteenth century, the power of commodity racism lay in its capacity to spread messages of white supremacy far and wide, in an attractive and accessible format.  

Brands served as international schools, using visual forms of classical conditioning to teach. Advertisements then became classrooms - found in newspapers, bus stops and products. These classrooms ensured that people learned to associate whiteness with enlightenment and blackness with all forms of barbarism.

Soap is Civilization


Among the range of commodities that were used in these racial brand campaigns, soap served as the perfect metaphor for the Empire's mission.   As McClintock observed, the object became imbued with 'magical fetish powers'.  And these magical properties had the power to transform black into white and to brighten the darkest corners of the world.  


“Soap is civilization”, was a slogan that appeared on the brand packaging of one of these products.  This particular product belonged to Pears - a soap company which was considered to be a pioneer in the commodity racism epidemic.  Pears proved that the use of soap could powerfully promote ideas such as cleansing the unwashed and clothing the savage, which, in turn, blended with the notion that white was right and symbolic of enlightenment.  

Commodity Racism Today

With the rise of imperialist discourse, whiteness in its broadest sense (skin, ideas, nation, hair and beauty) had become associated with civilization.  While blackness - in that same breadth - had become associated with barbarism.  Over time, it became clear that 'Black and Brown people' were learning to hate their skin and culture.  And African's in particular learned to view their unique 'nappy hair' as a sign of punishment for their sinful existence.  A number of modern brand campaigns including Nivea's 'Look Like You Give a Damn', brought these historical messages into the future.  In 2011, Nivea received major backlash when it launched a brand campaign “Look Like You Give a Damn” which ordered a black man to 're-civilize' himself by disowning his afro hair.  In the ad, a black man with a newly shaven head is holding his former head (which sports an afro) and is preparing to throw it into the distance.  At the centre of the image, the campaign tagline 'Re-civilize Yourself' is printed in bold.  In one image, Nivea manages to bring the historical politics of African hair, commodity racism and the civilising mission into one symbolic advertisement.  As it flaunts its immortality through modern brands, commodity racism reminds the world that it certainly is not dead.  


Since writing the original version of this piece, we’ve seen a number of brands come under the spotlight for commodity racism such as H&M, Pepsi, Shear Butter & once more even Dove. Although these brand campaigns are new, the themes and messages are clearly not.  In both 2011 and 2017, the Dove brand demonstrated the timelessness of soap and commodity racism as a dynamic duo for the spreading of imperial ideologies.  Their brand campaign 'Visible Care' (2011) revived history with a Pears' type message.  Its campaign which promised 'visibly more beautiful skin' suggested that the value of their soap was found in its magical ability to 'turn black women white'. Their 2017 body wash ad communicated a similar message.  Aside from the obvious problems with the campaigns themselves, it could be argued that what makes this even more problematic is that Pears, the soap company that pioneered the commodity racism epidemic in the 19th century  is owned by Unilever - the same company that also owns Dove. And as sister brands, this Unilever tag team ensured that the idea that white is a sign of purity, status and beauty continued to exist in modern society.  


Commodity Racism has been a ‘thing’ for over a century, replacing institutional/scientific racism in its ability to teach society the idea of white supremacy.  This is why it’s important to contextualise modern controversies and recognise that they are a part of a broader, historical and persistent issue. The question is: What will we do with this knowledge?

NOTE: This article is a rewrite of a longer academic piece. You can find it in full, along with a list of references here.

Najite Phoenix