Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising

April 28, 2011

Soap advertising, in particular the Pear’s soap campaign, took its place at the vanguard of Britain’s new commodity culture and its civilizing mission. In the 18th century, the commodity was little more than a mundane object to be brought and used – in Marx’s word ‘a trivial thing’. By the late 19th century, however, the commodity had taken its privileged place not only as the fundamental form of a new industrial economy but also as a fundamental form of a new cultural system for representing social value. In 1851, the great exhibition at the crystal palace served as a monument to a new form of consumption. The world exhibition showed that the capitalist system had not only created a dominant form of exchange but was also in the process of creating a dominant form of representation to go with it; the voyeuristic panorama of surplus as value. By exhibiting commodities not only as goods but as an organised system which conceived and grasped the world “as through it were an exhibition”. Consequently, the world exhibition helped fashion ‘a new kind of being, the consumer and a new kind of ideology, consumerism’. The mass consumption of the commodity spectacle was born.

Soap was credited not only with bringing moral and economic salvation to Britain’s great unwashed but also with embodying the imperial mission itself. In a typical ad for Pears Soap, a black child and a white child would be pictured together in a bathroom. The magical fetish of soap promises that the commodity can regenerate and improve the body by washing from the skin the very stigma of racial degeneration. Soap advertising offered an allegory of imperial progress as spectacle. In another frame of the ad, the black child is out of the bath and his body has become magically white, but his face remains stubbornly black. Thus the black child witnesses his predetermined destiny of imperial metamorphosis, but remains a passive radical hybrid, part black, part white, brought to the brink of civilization by the commodity, soap.


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