The latest rendition of “sorry, not sorry” is not just topping the Billboard charts. It is also a public relations anthem about “missing the mark.” This time, Dove skincare is being accused of “tone deafness.” The ad, appearing on Facebook, drew widespread critique. It features a loop of images of three women, each wearing a nude colored shirt to match the model’s skin tone. A black woman removes her shirt to become a white woman, who removes her shirt to become a brown woman, whose undressing returns us to the first of the three models. The company quickly pulled the ad, but not before viewers saved versions of it. One widely circulated screen grab captured a black woman transforming into a white one. Outrage was quickly followed by calls for #BoycottDove on Twitter.
Dove’s ad offers racial transformation through their body wash. It also mirrors centuries of imagery in which darker bodies are a negative counterpoint to white purity. Colonial ideologies and missionary programs relied on this logic, as have soap manufacturers. Early 20th century advertising in the United States routinely contrasted white purity—especially in the form of the white mother and child—to Blacks, Chinese, and Native Americans. By contrasting lightness and darkness, whiteness alone has value. Becoming clean is tantamount to washing dark pigment from the skin.
Dove conveyed regret that it “missed the mark” and promised that the feedback offered will help in the future. Color me skeptical. A 2011 Dove ad featured the text “before” and “after” above models ranging from black to brown to white. Some critics Tweeted images of the two ads next to each other, underscoring that Dove had learned little since its last debacle. And Dove is not the only company to fail in this way; a 2011 Nivea print ad campaign called “Re-Civilize Yourself” features a black man holding a version of his own face with an afro and facial hair. Attempts to civilize black and brown people into European norms has been the work of empire for centuries. The negative value associated with the “before” version of the man is unequivocal.
Who lets ads like this see the light of day? In my book, Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian American Consumers, I documented the painstaking process of how ads get made. From start to finish, there are dozens of people involved in everything from preliminary research, concept development, casting, production, and media placement. At every stage, decisions are made deliberately. Some ads are even tested with focus groups before they are released. More often than not, “diversity” is considered at various stages of the process. But what diversity means to an industry still dominated by white men can be quite different than its meaning to the broader public. Advertising’s version of “normal” and that of a shifting American population is an ever-widening chasm.
The indexical value of these images, that is, the meanings certain signs in the ads evoke for viewers, is contextual. This is why people react so differently to the same ad. Ad executives I observed exercised a great deal of control over what they created, but then relinquished it all when it entered the marketplace. Yet, they were always positive about their work. In other words, no one I met ever knowingly released an ad they regarded to be racist. Then why the disconnect? The heart of the matter is that what seems normal to a roomful of white ad executives and clients can be deeply offensive to people of color.
The ad’s black model, Lola Ogunyemi, wrote in the Guardian that she was horrified to learn about being the “before” image in the ad. As a Nigerian woman born in London and raised in Atlanta, she was thrilled to be offered a chance to be the next face of Dove, until she saw how her image was used. She was doubly upset that Dove simply pulled the ad rather than champion their casting of a darker-skinned model. This point is especially relevant because many ads today veer toward what executives I observed called “ethnic ambiguity.” These actors and models do not index any specific ethnicity or race; they simply “embody” diversity. What is unambiguous is that they are not white. For ad executives whose world is primarily white and middle class, racial difference can seem ambiguous and interchangeable. Niches of the advertising world that market to Latinos, Asian Americans, and Blacks are on the margins. Few are invited to weigh in on ads for “mainstream” audiences, even though it is a category to which they also belong. This social problematic has become an economic one, as the United States hurtles toward becoming a majority minority nation by 2042.
Like many corporate apologies, Dove’s message on Facebook attempted to explain its intent. In this case, it was to represent “the beauty of diversity.” The feedback they received was “important.” Another statement Dove published in the Guardian admitted that “it should not have happened.” And, not surprisingly, some commentators were upset at this outcome, accusing the offended of “overthinking” the ad. In my view, too much is downplayed when critics only decry such ads as “tone deaf” or having “missed the mark.” These ads have to be seen as what they are: incitements to white supremacy, intentional or not. Consider Nivea’s campaign from early this year, “White is purity.” A white supremacist group posted on Nivea’s Facebook page, “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.” These are more than PR nightmares. They are real threats for people viewing mass circulated imaging about racial superiority.
Apologies will continue to come up short. The only real solution is to do what ad agencies have yet to do successfully: hire more people of color and listen to them. In the meantime, at the very least, ask an anthropologist. Regardless of specialization, we could have confirmed that exfoliation does not result in racial transformation. Results do not vary.
Shalini Shankar is a professor at Northwestern University.
Cite as: Shankar, Shalini. 2017. “Here’s the Rub on the Dove Skincare Ad.” Anthropology News wesbite, October 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.645