Globus, Schweizergasse 11

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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

White Goods, Racist Advertising. The Long History of Colonial Stereotypes in Swiss Advertisements

Written by Patricia Purtschert; read by Alina Vimbai Strähler & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan

The department store Globus is considered a trendsetter in the Swiss advertising industry. Early on, Globus attempted to implement novel advertising methods, creating an advertising department under the leadership of Ignatius Karl Schiele in the early 1930s. Schiele also invented the famous parrot character Globi in collaboration with the young illustrator Robert Lips. In 1933, he asked Lips to design something "novel" for an upcoming special sales week.

Lips created the "white N---" for the occasion: a clownish figure with black arms and legs, black curls, a white face, and the external characteristics that racial research at the time attributed to black people. This figure was displayed in numerous shop windows throughout German-speaking Switzerland, promoting the upcoming "Weisswarenwochen" (“White Goods Weeks”), during which white linen, white crockery, and white clothing were on special sale.

Contrary to Schiele's assertions, the figure drawn by Lips was anything but novel. It consisted of elements of a colonial culture with which the Swiss public was very familiar: Zurichers of the 1930s had the opportunity to "visit" black people in the "Senegalese village" at the Zurich Zoo, after all. (For more on so-called “Völkerschauen” see Plattenstrasse 10). The combination of black limbs and a white head also evoked memories of advertisements that had been popular in Western Europe since the 19th century, where soaps and detergents were advertised with the help of black figures that were "washed white", much to the amusement of the (white) audience. This is also the case, for example, in a French advertisement for the stain remover ‘Eau de Javelle’. It shows a naked black child being scrubbed white by a young white woman with red cheeks. The accompanying text recommends the product for bleaching laundry.

The connection between being white and hygiene has a long tradition. In 1930s Switzerland, civilization, hygiene, and progress were equated with being white and contrasted with an allegedly primitive Africa. According to this idea, it was the "duty" of the white Swiss to act as role models for the supposedly "uncivilized" people of this world. The racist idea of how people are hierarchically arranged is thus also spread through advertising.

Old news? Hardly. More than eighty years later, Migros advertised the detergent TOTAL in 2014 with the slogan "Turn brown bears into polar bears again". The advertising photo shows the head of a brown bear sticking out of the water. Its body, which is under water, is covered by a white fur. A genuinely brown creature is to be turned into a white one. Again, whiteness is associated with cleanliness and brown color with dirtiness. In this way, the advertisement ties in with colonial ideas. The short commercial that accompanies the campaign further celebrates whiteness: it shows a blond, white woman in a white sweater washing a brown teddy bear with her little white son wearing a white shirt, in a white washing machine, in a white laundry room, with white curtains.

This example shows how colonial and racist ideas perpetuate over time and often without reflection. They are also, but not only, recognizable in advertisements.

Patricia Purtschert is professor of gender studies and co-director of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Bern.

Further reading: 

bell hooks (1992): Black Looks. Race and Representation, Boston: SouthEnde Press

CRAN (carrefour de refléxion et d’action contre le racisme anti – noir) (2014): «Presseerklärung und Boykottaufruf gegen die Migros vom 8. Dezember 2014»: [] [1. Februar 2016].

Droux, Julian; Lobe, Max; Ohene-Nyako, Pamela; Toutou-Mpondo, Fanny; Yere, Huguette (2014): «Offener Brief an die Migros vom 27. Oktober 2014»: [] [1. Februar 2016].

Fanon, Frantz (1980): Schwarze Haut, weisse Masken. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Menrath, Manuel (2012): Afrika im Blick. Afrikabilder im deutschsprachigen Europa, 1870 – 1970. Zürich: Chronos.

Pétremont, Mélanie-Evely (2021): Weisse Räume mit Humor und antirassistischer Performanceabbauen. Eine Fallstudie in derpostkolonialen Schweiz, in: Jovita dos Santos Pinto, Pamela Ohene-Nyako, Mélanie-Evely Pétremont, Anne Lavanchy, Barbara Lüthi, Patricia Purtschert, Damir Skenderovic (Hrsg.): Un/doing Race. Rassifizierung in der Schweiz. Zürich: Seismo.

Purtschert, Patricia (2019): Kolonialität und Geschlecht im 20. Jahrhundert. Eine Geschichte der weissen Schweiz. Bielefeld: transcript.

Wolter, Stefanie (2005): Die Vermarktung des Fremden. Exotismus und die Anfänge des Massenkonsums. Frankfurt am Main: Campus.