Microsoft sparks race row after removing black face from advert

In the first picture, he is a smiling, grandfatherly black man, with salt and pepper hair and a smart grey suit. In the second, the suit remains, but the black man has become white, and a decade younger, with slicked-back hair. Yet not all is different: he still has a black hand.

“Empower your people with the IT tools they need,” reads the caption. But the use of tools to change the image — used in its original form to promote Microsoft’s business productivity software on its American website — has caused outrage.

In the original picture, the black man sits between a white woman and an Asian man. On the Polish version of the same website, there is not a black face to be seen. The two versions were widely circulated on the internet yesterday as it emerged that Microsoft had doctored the image to remove the black man.

No explanation for the change was given, but many believed that the image was “whitened” because Poland is one of the world’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. Almost 97 per cent of the population claim Polish nationality largely due to its radically altered borders after the Second World War.

Twitter users and bloggers were voicing their surprise and outrage yesterday. “In this day and age, this is shocking,” wrote one Tweeter, Paul Walsh (@Paul Walsh) asked if it was “racist or stupid?” and Gabrielle Laine Peters (@GabrielleNYC) commented Microsoft “Stupid, Lazy & Cheap… speaking as a ‘brown’ person!

Microsoft used its own Twitter feed to apologise. “We are looking into the details of this situation,” a company spokesman said. “We apologise and are in the process of pulling down the image.”

Later, a spokeswoman for Microsoft in Poland said that the doctoring was a “simple mistake” and was not racially motivated. The picture was taken in September last year, she said, and all four people responsible for editing it had left the company some time ago.

“We would really like to apologise,” she said. “We are a multiracial company and there isn’t a chance any of us are racist.”