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Advertising Imperial, Racial, and Gender Dynamics, Then and Now

Issues of white supremacy and racial hierarchies were almost always at the core of most imperial civilizing programs that used sanitation as an effective ideological device to promote particular commercial enterprises and to commodify imperial racial stereotypes. Thus, cleanliness and whiteness were interchangeable epitomes of British (European) colonial power. Advertising hygiene and cleanliness became an imperial responsibility and an assignment embraced with religious perseverance by major commercial companies such as Pears Soap. For instance, Anne McClintock has successfully explored in Imperial Leather. Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (1995) the strong link between British imperial ideology, racial stereotypification, gendered domesticity, and British commercial acumen and efficacy on imperial markets.9 The language of scientific racism in Victorian times was anchored, alongside ideas of progress and imperial civilizing mission, in the pursuit of a pristine white complexion—the sign of social upward mobility, high-class status, and racial supremacy. Consequently, the use of soap became an

On Visual Rhetoric 13 act of civic and imperial duty that eclipsed immediate sanitary, medical, and educational programs.

The trade of imperial soap across the British Empire was endorsed by wide advertising campaigns that, within their intrinsic rhetoric, transacted imperial ideologies of European (white) racial supremacy. The offensive and often amusing outcome of posters advertising this imperial trade-race-civilizing mission has recently been recycled by artist Rajka-mal Kahlon in an acerbic critique of neo-imperial guilt and responsibility. Kahlon’s composite artwork This Is the Way We Wash Our Hands artwork (gouache and acrylic ink on archival digital print) builds both on one of the Pears Soap colonial advertisements and on a visual rhetoric critical of (neo-) imperialism, racism, and gender discrimination.10 With its reattributed imperial visual and ideological literacies, her artwork proposes a complex research material to those historians, cultural anthropologists, and social scientists interested in re-evaluating imperial narratives of cultural governmentality and twenty-first century’s racial and political agendas.

 
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