What does Dove’s failed campaign say about the state of the advertising industry?

The last week saw social media up in arms as the beauty brand Dove unveiled a new advert on its Facebook page which was deemed by many to be racially insensitive.

The 13-second long video clip depicts a young black woman posing next to a bottle of one of Dove’s body products, wearing a t-shirt that matches the colour of her skin. She then removes her t-shirt and transforms into a white woman. In an extended version of the advert, that circulated on social media, there is an additional scene where she takes off the shirt to reveal a woman of Asian descent.

Immediately after it was posted on 7 October, the advert drew widespread criticism on both Facebook and Twitter and was swiftly removed by the Unilever-owned company. However a frame grab from the video, focusing on the black woman taking off her t-shirt to reveal a white woman, quickly went viral on social media and caused outrage among many.

Dove subsequently posted an apologetic statement on its Twitter account, stating that they had “missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully” and that they “deeply regret the offense it caused.”

For many online users, the video was perceived to promote the idea that black skin could be washed clean to white. These sentiments were echoed by transgender model Munroe Bergdorf in an interview on Good Morning Britain, where she stated that “There is a precedent in the beauty industry that white is pure and light and fresh and black isn’t.”

This is not the first time that Dove has been accused of racism in its advertising. In 2011, the company ran a promotional campaign using three women of different ethnicities, where a ‘before’ label was placed over the body of a black women and ‘after’ over a white woman.

However Lola Ogunyemi, the black model who appears in the advert at the centre of the controversy, did not consider the advert to be racist. Writing in The Guardian, she declared that she had become “the unwitting child for racist advertising.” “Having the opportunity to represent my dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand felt like the perfect way for me to remind the world that we are here, we are beautiful, and more importantly, we are valued,” she said.

Dove is not the only major brand to draw criticism over its depiction of race in the last year. Who can forget the Pepsi advertising scandal back in April, featuring model and reality television star Kendall Jenner? In the advert, Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer who takes a sip of the drink as the surrounding crowd of protesters cheer. Many critics said that the advert trivialized the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement against police violence and was a clear example of the need for a more diverse board of decision-makers at the top of the advertising industry.

In this case, there is certainly something to be said for the power of social media and its role in advertising. Public scrutiny of global brands and the images that they project to their consumers are increasingly intensified and far more acute than it ever has been in the past. Within the limits of 140 characters and the margins of Facebook comments, anyone can become a critic.

However, there is also the danger that contexts can be misconstrued and that narratives can be re-written to say something that was not initially intended. It is unlikely that Dove actively intended to convey a racist message with their advert, but it is important to identify when such material passively upholds harmful ideals.

Fundamentally, the widespread controversy of the Dove adverts underscores a time of high cultural tensions and demonstrates how the fluid, viral nature of social media can quickly escalate a situation.

Perhaps then, to attempt to heal the wounds and prevent further damage in the future, big brands should engage more directly with their critics and consumers on a deeper and more frequent level.

Image: Dove via Twitter

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