Dove's Racially-Insensitive Ad
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
The makers of Dove soap found themselves in hot water in 2017, after one of the year’s biggest social media misfires. The company apologized after critics accused its body wash advertisement of being racist.
In a Facebook ad, a black woman is seen next to a bottle of Dove Body Wash removing her brown shirt to reveal a white woman wearing a lighter-colored shirt. A GIF of the ad lasted only three seconds, but it caused days of controversy for the company.
For many people, the ad left the impression that the black woman was dirty and needed to be cleaned and become white. It harkened back to racist soap advertisements in the 19th and 20th centuries that played on these tropes. One ad, by the N. K. Fairbank Company, showed a white child asking a black child, “Why doesn’t your mamma wash you with Fairy soap?”
Taken out of Context?
While the snippet making the rounds was just a portion of the extended ad – the white woman changes into an Asian woman in the longer commercial – that was lost in the three-second GIF that went viral online.
Dove told The New York Times that the ad “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity.”
However, the images caused a firestorm online. Humphreys (2016) defined firestorms as “the sudden discharge of large quantities of messages containing negative WOM [word of mouth] and complaint behavior against a person, company, or group in social media networks” (p. 201). The negative response forced the company into crisis management.
Dove Does Damage Control
The company posted a response on Facebook (on a Saturday, no less), saying, “Dove is committed to representing the beauty of diversity. In an image we posted this week, we missed the mark in thoughtfully representing women of color and we deeply regret the offense that it has caused.”
However, the damage was done. Humphreys (2016) added that “companies are also subject to criticism on social media” (p. 201). Some people called the ad “tone deaf,” saying they were surprised it was approved at multiple levels without anyone questioning it.
“What was the mark,” Ariel Macklin commented on Facebook. “I mean anyone with eyes can see how offensive this is. Not one person on your staff objected to this? Wow. Will not be buying your products anymore.”
Chris Allieri, who works at a New York-based PR, branding, and marketing agency told Business Insider, “When your ad is being called ‘racist’ by people across social media, you’ve done a lot more than ‘miss the mark.’”
Still, not everyone saw the ad as racist. JusA’nna Esor Cox commented on Facebook, “Your ad was not racist. Whoever made screenshots made it racist. I'm more mad at y'all for pulling an ad that was beautiful and not standing by your ad and ultimately your product.”
Dove’s Previous Criticism
This wasn’t the first misstep for Dove. Critics said it was just the latest marketing campaign to advance white beauty over other skin colors.
In 2011, the company apologized for an ad that suggested a “before” photo of a black woman and an “after” photo of a white woman with “visibly more beautiful skin.” A year later, the company’s Summer Glow lotion was branded “for normal to dark skin.” Bottles of that product continued to be marketed and distributed with that branding for years.
Why the Ad Failed
The three-second GIF posted on Facebook was a #fail from the get-go. By giving viewers the impression that the black woman was washing away her darker skin tone, the company offended many people. A #BoycottDove campaign spread on social media, though it is not clear whether that effort impacted the company’s bottom line.
Cunningham (2014) noted how messages on social network sites that "show disregard for (the) receiver's attitudes and values" can cause the sender to be looked upon unfavorably (p. 206). Dove may not have intentionally created this ad to be unkind, but by not being sensitive to racial issues, it stepped into a social media minefield.
Whenever an advertisement involves race, a company must test it in focus groups with a diverse audience before launching the campaign. Perhaps Dove did that, and no one complained?
The Nigerian woman who appeared in the ad told The Guardian that the clip online was misinterpreted, but added, “I can also see that a lot has been left out. The narrative has been written without giving consumers context on which to base an informed opinion.” By being artistic, the creators of the campaign allowed the ad's message to be open to interpretation – and in that void, the Internet filled in the blanks.
Had I been in charge of this campaign, I would have included a tag line: “Dove Body Wash is for Every Woman.” I would have also removed the transition between the women and had them appear together. Would it have been less creative? Perhaps. But I bet Dove wishes it didn't have to "clean up" this mess of its own making.