Getting called out for creating a racist ad once, is unacceptable and embarrassing. But being accused of making the same mistake, again, is quite frankly…mind boggling.
At the start of this week, personal care brand Dove, owned by Unilever, was shamed into pulling a three second ad that it had made for its US Facebook page, due to claims that it contained racist content. The ad featured a black woman pulling her t-shirt off to reveal a white woman underneath, which was captured and shared via social media, and rapidly went viral.
What the image didn’t show was that the full ad featured five women of different ethnicities, with one morphing into another. Yesterday, the black face of the campaign, Lola Ogunyemi, spoke to BBC News and defended the ad, claiming the controversy had taken it out of context. She claimed the campaign was instead “supposed to be about all skin types deserving gentleness”, and said she “knew the concept and understood what they were trying to do creatively”. However she admitted she wasn’t aware of the order in which the women would be featured, which turned out to be the defining factor.
Regardless of creative intent, which the company said was “to convey that Dove body wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, there is no denying that the ad shows a black woman turning into a white women, with a prominent image of Dove soap in the foreground. This begs the question, why didn’t anyone at any stage in the creative process see how this ad would be interpreted. How could one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical brands get it so wrong, again? Based on past history, surely every possible interpretation of the ad should have been rigorously considered. In 2011, it ran a campaign showing a three women of different ethnicities with a label “before” over a black woman and “after” over a white woman, which again, no one spotted.
“It should “never have happened,” and “we got it wrong”, Dove admitted this week. The group also said within a statement that it was reviewing its internal review processes for making and approving social media ads “to prevent us making this type of mistake in future”.
But is this enough? Speaking to the Financial Times, Mary Harding, managing director at communications agency Tangerine, said: “The fact that this isn’t the first time Unilever has been called out for not portraying women of colour ‘thoughtfully’ raises wider questions about its creative process and what consumer testing was put in place ahead of the social ad going live.”
As one tweet posted during the debacle said:
Of course Dove isn’t the first brand to come under fire for causing racist offence with its advertising, and it certainly won’t be the last. But let’s hope that Unilever had finally learnt its lesson. As with any social media firestorm, it has certainly placed Dove front of mind among consumers this week, and it will be interesting to see the impact this has on sales.