Brand names still stuck in the dark age

A chance encounter with a line of cleaning products whose name would spark outrage in the West leaves Andrew Biggs thinking he's stepped into a time warp and then appalled that he has not

My local supermarket was having a ''cleaning sale'' this week _ wonderful news since my maid's birthday is coming up _ but it was five minutes to 2pm.

I gave the sale but a furtive glance as I pushed my trolley towards the liquor aisle. But what I saw in that moment of furtiveness stopped me in my tracks.

It was a sale on cleaning utensils under a brand name written above the discounted goods in gigantic lettering: BLACK MAN.

Do you ever wake up in the morning and for a short moment not know where you are or even who you are? I sometimes wake up thinking I'm still 21 years old with my whole life ahead of me.

For me, seeing a brazen sign proclaiming a product range under the brand name BLACK MAN put me in a spin. Suddenly I was in the American Deep South on a plantation called Tara with Mammy ordering me to eat my grits.

A fleeting disorientation, and soon I snapped back to reality, in the middle of Bangkok, in the year 2012, looking at a sign advertising products under the brand name of Black Man.

Not just a name; a picture as well. Black Man products feature a logo of a black man in a suit and bow tie, thrilled to bits he's got all these cleaning objects on hand.

And what a range it is; mops, brooms, sponges, dustpans and brooms, window cleaners _ all ironically white but sporting the proud Black Man image.

I must have stood there for a full five minutes, stupefied and with dozens of thoughts zipping around my White Man's head.

The first: We can send a man to the moon. Information spanning the entire globe fits right inside my mobile phone. Yet still we have Black Man mops and dustpans?

The second: What kind of country would allow such a brand to be manufactured? My first guess was it had to be a cheap import from somewhere like China, where the racial stereotype has no connection to the local people.

How wrong I was. I craned my neck towards the Black Man window wipers. There on the back of the packaging were the proud words: MADE IN THAILAND.

Oh my goodness. What has happened to my beloved Thailand? What next? Will Thongchai McIntyre perform in blackface at Ratchadalai? Are they sewing Ku Klux Klan outfits in Pratunam as we speak?

Worse _ the Black Man logo had an R in a circle. We're not talking about some fly-by-night factory churning out cheap and nasty products. Black Man is a registered trademark!

That really got my blood boiling. You see, the Thailand trademark office and I are not the greatest of friends, and it dates back to when I was registering my business here in Thailand, a business name that included my own name.

I submitted my application. It was rejected. What there's another Andrew Biggs lurking around Thailand who's already set up a business?

I put in an official appeal; the official reply was I couldn't register the name ''Andrew'' in my company name because another company was already using it. That company happened to be a school down the road from my stately Samut Prakan manor, St Andrew's School.

Well, I wasn't going to take that lying down.

Refusing to accept it was karma for all those bad things I used to say about Mother Teresa, I stormed down to the trademark office where I explained that Andrew was as common a name as Somchai or Somsri and wasn't this a Buddhist country anyway? Surely Christian saints don't hold any clout here _ especially one as C-List as St Andrew!

If only I'd registered my company name as something really offensive and racist, like Jew Boy or Muslim Suicide Bomber. They would have been passed in a flash. Black Man clearly got by with nary a raised eyebrow.

The knowledge we still have brand names such as these in our modern world kind of upset me all day. Here we are about to take the technologically advanced step of providing all our Year One students with e-tablets, but still we happily churn out cleaning products under such names.

Surely that era should have long passed. When I first came to Thailand there was a toothpaste called Darkie, whose logo wasn't that far removed from the smiling Black Man logo I saw this week, only the Darkie one had a top hat.

Within a year or two _ probably around 1991 _ Darkie had morphed into Darlie, and the smiling man in the top hat had been white-washed. It is a toothpaste still popular in Thailand to this day.

Black Man never made the leap. On the contrary, it is as brazen as ever.

Black Man products have a slogan emblazoned across their website: THINK OF CLEANLINESS, THINK OF BLACK MAN. Well yes of course we do, if this were 1861 and the Union troops were comin'.

How could a company in 2012 get away with such a thing? There was only one thing to do. I telephoned them.

Putting on my best Thai accent, the operator picked up the phone.

''Yes hello,'' I said. ''I've just purchased one of your products and noticed the brand name when I got home. I'm wondering if it might be a little ... offensive?''

The operator just laughed. ''Hold the line, I'll put you through to our marketing office,'' she said, in a tone that suggested I may have had a screw loose, which may be true, but certainly not because I get upset by abhorrent brand names.

I was put through to a very pleasant gentleman who informed me that the Black Man brand name is actually 50 years old and a best-seller in Thailand for cleaning equipment.

''It's interesting, because I've never had a Thai call me before to complain,'' he said. I was immediately torn between deep disappointment in Thais as a whole for not finding such a brand offensive, and selfish pride in being able to pass myself off as a Thai over the phone.

What about foreigners?

''Oh yes, now and again we get foreign suppliers asking why we use such a name,'' he said, adding the company had no immediate plans to change.

''Foreigners are the only ones who ask about it. Thais never do.''

Ah, those pesky foreigners. I can just hear this company the day they finally have to change when they attempt to market Black Man overseas. It'll be like a Scooby Doo episode: ''We'd have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddlesome farang!''

He asked me if there was anything else. Actually there was.

I wanted to tell him there was a black president in the US now, and that slavery was abolished 150 years ago, and there are vast tracts of this world that now understand how pathetic it is to stereotype based on one's skin colour. But he may have found that irrelevant, since sales of Black Man are still great after 50 years, and that's all that matters, right?

I said goodbye and hung up.

And that is where I leave you this week, dear reader, with my Black Man window washer propped up on my desk.

What can I do? I can refuse to purchase any Black Man product and try to spread the word. In that way everybody is happy; Black Man continues to sell briskly, I continue to take a stand against racism, and my maid gets that wrist watch she's had her eye on for her birthday.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Andrew Biggs
Position: Regular Freelance Writer