If you’ve been on social media recently, there is no doubt that you’ve seen the debacle that it is the latest Dove body wash advert. The image that has been countlessly retweeted is from a clip of the 3 second advert. It shows a black woman wearing a chocolate coloured t-shirt, removing her top to reveal a white woman wearing a cream coloured top. Obviously this image caused an outcry of anger towards Dove as it seemed to to imply that by using the body wash, you are washing away and ridding yourself of the “dirt” that is black skin and making way for the “cleaner” white skin.
Like most of the Internet population, I was swift to make a judgement on Dove and the message they were sending. I had already added them on to my ever growing list of “cancelled” brands. However, the full 3 second clip shows the white woman go on to also remove her top to then reveal another woman of colour. Seeing the full ad made my frustration simmer slightly as I came to the realisation that the image being shared around was actually quite misleading. The intention and message of the brand were attempting to convey became clearer.
Dove are all about celebrating and showing the diversity in beauty with their Real Beauty campaigns and Self-Esteem Project. They often use real women, not models, in their adverts and campaigns, representing a range of shapes and ethnicities. This advert was just another tool of promotion showing that beauty comes in all shades and variations. Although this may have been their intention, their execution was poor and rightly so, caused an uproar.
It probably does not help that this is not the first time that Dove has found themselves in this situation. Back in 2011, Dove were also riddled in controversy with regards to an advert for their VisibleCare body wash. It suggested that the end result of using this product would give you the more desirable skin of the white lady on the poster. They placed the word “before” above the black model and “above” on top of the white model. These directions are actually not referring to the models at all but in fact are showing you the before and after effect of the wash on your skin, the before being dry and after being moisturised. You would think the backlash they faced regarding this advert would have made Dove think twice about the way the latest ad would be perceived.
Despite the obvious mistakes made by the skincare brand, I can’t help but feel that I jumped to conclusion with my initial reaction. My anger led me to tweet my shock and anger at the brand without even seeing the full clip first. I keep going back to the criticism that people of colour face by non POC, that we always “make everything about race”. But when you look at the long history of the way people of colour have been portrayed and used in skincare and beauty campaigns, you cannot blame the fact that so many, like myself, did go from 0 to 100 when we first saw this advert. Many ads from the past have equated black skin with dirt and something to get rid of and be ashamed of. So when adverts come to light with similar undertones, the reaction is justifiable.
Dove can learn a great deal from both history and these failed adverts. Firstly, optics is everything. Secondly, you have to examine how products and advertisements will be viewed by different groups of society. This well loved brand could have avoided this if they had properly reviewed the ad from as many angles as possible. These fiascos also highlight the deep rooted issue of the lack of diversity in the marketing and advertising world. Regardless of the fact that the company made a clear effort to involve people of colour in this advert, surely someone along the production line should have recognised that the public would have been sensitive to the racial undertones suggested in this clip.
I’m sure if there were more people of colour who had a seat at the table, they would have recognised that these ads could be misinterpreted. Then many of us wouldn’t be looking for alternative body washes now. Instead of apologising for “missing the mark” once again, maybe this whole situation will stress to the powers that be at Dove, the importance of a diverse team not just in front of the camera, but behind the scenes too, to help guide the narrative that won’t cause controversy.
Written by Aisha Rimi