The Darlie Trademark And BLM

In light of the social activism in the United States, including Black Lives Matter (BLM), Hawley & Hazel, and its joint venture partner, Colgate Palmolive has recently decided to “review and evolve” their branding strategy for their famous-in-Asia Darlie trademark and logo for toothpaste and related products.  This long-established mark was originally called “Darkie” and the logo was modeled after Al Jolson in blackface. although the English name has since changed from Darkie to Darlie,and the logo is now of a man in a tophat,  In the Chinese language the brand is still called  黑人牙膏, literally “Black man toothpaste.” Wikipedia has a good summary of the origins of this nearly 90-year-old brand in Shanghai,  I will not post the imagery here.

Ironically, the decision to change the mark comes shortly after Hawley and Hazel had been granted a new registration for the Darlie mark in the United States (March 2020).  The application for that mark is dated July 5, 2018, just one year after the US Supreme Court decided Matal v. Tam, (June 2017), which invalidated, on first amendment grounds  Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act that prohibited registration of trademarks that “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” Based on the timing, one wonders whether the decision of Hawley and Hazel to pursue registration of the mark in the United States was based in part on door-opening provided by the precedent of Matal v. Tam,

The Darlie mark may now be viewed as a unique example of Sino-US trademark karma.  In only a few short months since that registration, due to the BLM movement, there has emerged ”a dramatically shifting landscape for racialized brands in the future,” as noted by my colleagues Angela Riley and Sonia Katyal in a recent op-ed published in the New York Times.

However, changing the mark is not fully in control of the owners.  Even if the mark were abandoned by its original owners, trademarks like these may yet survive in the hands of China’s large community of trademark squatters. According to press reports, Hawley & Hazel has been in litigation with “Guangzhou Heiren” (Canton Black Man) in China over trademark squatting (without intent to use) and copyright infringement for use of its Darlie logo and mark for pesticides, insect traps, refrigerator deodorant and toilet paper.

Darlie clearly faces several branding challenges that require “review” and “evolution.” The mark and brand have long been considered unacceptable by many.  It may now, however, be difficult for its original owners to control the various rights that have developed around it by squatters: trademark, copyright, and even an enterprise name (Guangzhou Heiren).  If it were to abandon these rights, these squatters may be able to continue to use these rights with impunity.

China, unlike the United States, has at least one added weapon in addressing these issues.  Its Trademark Law prohibits registration of marks “having the nature of discrimination against any nationality” or that are “detrimental to socialist ethics or customs, or have other unwholesome influences.” (Art. 10).  Lacking the restrictions of a Matal v. Tam, China might also consider how to appropriately support the aspirations of its owners to move away from a racialized brand by also stopping their continuing use by squatters.