"This Africa" cigarettes
"This Africa" cigarettes KT&G

A cigarette manufacturer in South Korean has withdrawn an inflammatory ad campaign that appeared to equate black African people to chimpanzees. KT&G (KRX:033780), South Korea's largest tobacco company with annual sales of at least $2 billion, had promoted a new line of cigarettes called “This Africa,” which featured posters showing monkeys wearing human clothes with a caption declaring “Africa is coming!”

Reportedly, the cigarettes contain roasted tobacco imported from the African continent, hence the “link” to Africa. The cigarette packages themselves show monkeys roasting tobacco leaves and have been displayed at convenience stores across South Korea.

"We are deeply offended by KT&G's shameless and insulting use of this mocking imagery," said the African Tobacco Control Alliance, a Togo-based anti-tobacco group, and demanded the advertisement’s removal. "Mocking Africa to sell a product that causes death and disease is unacceptable, and we will not stand for the exploitation of Africa by tobacco companies."

"KT&G's misappropriation and exploitation of Africa to sell its product of death and illness to Koreans is at a minimum culturally insensitive -- and at worst another form of oppression and exploitation that African peoples have faced for decades," added the alliance. "We, as Africans, do not want our name to be used to sell death and disease to the people of South Korea.”

An unidentified Korean official from an international organization told the English-language Korea Times of Seoul: “Anyone who has the most basic knowledge of the painful history of the African continent during the slave trade should know the justification of which the European colonialist worked under.” He added: “People from the African continent were considered as subhumans that had the knowledge and capabilities of monkeys. How selfish it is if you think about how easily we Koreans are enraged with the slightest belittlement of our background and culture from other countries?”

In response, a spokeswoman for KT&G told Agence France-Presse that they will pull the advertisements this month and called the whole affair “regrettable,” while contending the firm wishes to "dispel concerns of racism.” "We absolutely had no intention to offend anyone and only chose monkeys because they are delightful animals that remind people of Africa. Since this product contains leaves produced by the traditional African style, we only tried to adopt images that symbolize the nature of Africa,” the spokeswoman added.

She also told Korea Times the negative reactions “were totally unexpected as nobody raised the racism issue during the design process.” The Korean Herald reported that British graphic designer Papaboule and fashion street magazine Cracker Your Wardrobe participated in the design. But the spokesman also stated that the images on the tobacco packets will not be changed.

Korea Times reported that Africans living in South Korea were also angered by the advertisement. Zambian native Mirriam Simasiku, who lives in Seoul with her Korean husband and children, complained: “It’s extremely offensive in all respects. According to those images, Africans are just a bunch of uneducated monkeys. We as Africans are still a minority against a multitude of ‘pure’ Koreans with no law to protect us.”

South Korean online forums also weighed in on the controversy, according to AFP. "They basically turned cigarette-making Africans into cigarette-making monkeys ... isn't this racism?" one commentator wrote.

However, Koreans’ attitudes towards foreigners, particularly black Africans, remain troublesome. Earlier this summer a South Korean professional baseball player named Kim Tae Kyun triggered outrage over comments he made about Shane Youman, a black American pitcher who plays in Korea. Kim explained to a sports radio host why he didn’t like facing him. “Youman is the most difficult player to play against,” Kim said. "His face is too black, so it is hard to bat because his white teeth and the ball confuses me when he smiles on the mound." Kim later apologized for his remarks, but in recent years the influx of foreigners (including Europeans, North Americans, South Asians and Africans) into South Korea had caused some social discomfort in what was once a racially homogeneous nation.