South Korea's biggest tobacco company, KT&G, is pulling its national advertising campaign for its new brand of cigarettes, This Africa.
You can probably imagine where the story is going from here: The ads shows monkeys and apes on the African savanna rolling cigarettes and, in some ads, dressed as reporters espousing the tobacco's great flavor. There was an international outcry, and the company responded by promising to pull the ads.
There are two ways to see the ads. The critical view says that they equate Africans with monkeys and apes, which would indeed seem to be awfully racist. A more sympathetic view might suggest that the ads merely played on consumers' association of Africa with wildlife. It's vague enough that pulling the ads was probably the right call. But KT&G's official statement seemed to almost suggest that the company actually meant to portray "traditional" African cigarette-makers as akin to monkeys and apes.
"We absolutely had no intention to offend anyone and only chose monkeys because they are delightful animals that remind people of Africa," a spokeswoman told the BBC. "Since this product contains leaves produced by the traditional African style, we only tried to adopt images that symbolize the nature of Africa."
It's also hard to understand why KT&G would pull the ads but not change the art on the cigarette packs, which show baboons rolling tobacco leaves. That seems to much more explicitly compare Africans to monkeys than do the chimpanzee ads, which at least leave open the possibility of merely suggesting that African chimps are excited about the product.
The whole incident is a reminder of how complicated racial issues can be in South Korea. Korean society has long defined itself by its race; scholars such as B.R. Myers have written about Korea's view of its own national-racial identity as unique, something that shows up in both the North and South. Metrics of racial tolerance tend to rate the country poorly. As in much of East Asia, those attitudes seem particularly likely to manifest with regard to sub-Saharan Africans.
Immigration to the country can be difficult and is rare, relative to other countries of comparable wealth. Last year, in a story on how rising immigration from Southeast Asia was challenging racial attitudes in South Korea, the New York Times noted, "Only a decade ago, school textbooks still urged South Koreans to take pride in being of 'one blood' and ethnically homogeneous." In some ways, then, this controversy – and the company's response – are a reminder of South Korea's sometimes difficult racial politics.