The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Dove ad showed a black woman turning herself white. The backlash is growing.

The Dove brand sheepishly admitted Saturday that it had “missed the mark” with a not-so-vaguely racist advertisement that made it the latest target of consumer rage.

But angry and befuddled Dove lovers spent the weekend wondering what mark Dove was trying to hit in the first place.

The ire-inducing advertisement was released Saturday afternoon. The first frame shows a dark-skinned woman in what appears to be a bathroom, a bottle of Dove body wash in the lower right-hand corner of the frame.

In subsequent frames, the woman reaches down and lifts up her shirt (and apparently the rest of her skin/costume) to reveal a smiling white woman.

Offended social media users erupted, and the company quickly apologized. But Dove’s two-sentence Twitter note and a slightly longer message on Facebook left it unclear what exactly the ad was trying to convey.

Unilever, Dove’s parent company, did not respond to Washington Post requests for comment on the ad.

The vacuum of information was filled on social media by people peppering the company with comments and rhetorical questions, none of them good.

Was Dove saying that inside every black woman is a smiling, redheaded white woman? Was Dove invoking the centuries-old stereotype that black is dirty and white is pure? Or that black skin can or should be cleansed away? And perhaps the biggest question of all: Did Dove really believe that the ad would make more people of color want to buy its products?

“What exactly were yall going for?” a self-described Dove consumer said on the company’s Facebook page. “What was the mark . . . 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.”

Others wondered whether the problem was a lack of diversity at Dove.

By Monday morning, the hashtag #BoycottDove was spreading on Twitter.

“The short video was intended to convey that Dove body wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong,” the brand said Monday in a statement to Reuters.

A copy of the video captured by a Twitter user before Dove took it down showed three women, not two. In the end, the white woman removes her shirt, revealing a brown woman. But the  screen captures were the most widely disseminated images of the ad, which sparked a spreading backlash on Monday morning.

Model Munroe Bergdorf and other critics pointed to historical examples of racist ads about soap so effective that it apparently washes the melanin right out of your skin.

Posted by Megan Blair on Saturday, October 7, 2017

The marketing conundrum is, of course, not limited to the 62-year-old maker of soaps and body washes. Earlier this year, the German skin-care company Nivea was dinged for a deodorant ad that declared “White Is Purity.”

As The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang wrote, there was a loud outcry from consumers, who called the ad campaign “horrendous” and a “#prnightmare.” A white-supremacist group even posted on the company’s Facebook page: “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.”

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Still, this latest predicament was a curious one for Dove, a beauty company that has a 13-year-old marketing campaign centered on rejecting standard, racially insular notions of beauty in its commercials. On its website, Dove touts the “Real Beauty Pledge,” a vow to feature “real women of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, hair color, type or style.”

The brand recently paid producer/screenwriter Shonda Rhimes to make mini films celebrating that theme. Rhimes has created several TV shows that feature minority women as lead characters.

In May, Rhimes produced a short film for Dove about the woman who started the “Fat Girls Dance” group. “It’s incredible to watch these ladies go from scared fat girls to, you know, completely amazing warrior fat girls,” Cathleen Meredith, the group’s founder, says in the video. “I think the entire model of what beauty is needs to be thrown completely out, and we need to start defining what beauty is for ourselves.”

Dove’s marketing campaign has been criticized by people who believe that feminism and women’s empowerment shouldn’t be used as marketing tools to persuade people to buy shower foam. As Time wrote in 2013, “Beauty companies like Dove and Pantene capitalize on feminist messages to hawk you products they’ve convinced you need.”

The article went on to say:

One could argue that messages of gender equality are important enough that it doesn’t matter if they precede ad copy for a shampoo company. But that line of thinking conveniently misses the point, particularly when it’s beauty companies who are using feminism to sell products.
Brands like Dove and Pantene have made millions by preying on women’s insecurities and convincing them they need to buy products to meet societal standards of beauty: sure, you’re beautiful just the way you are, but use our products and you can be even more beautiful.

The ethics of feminism-centered marketing campaigns aside, Saturday’s ad was not the first time Dove’s users felt that it had missed the mark. In May, Dove released six limited-edition bottles of body wash in British markets — some squat and curvy, some tall and lean — that were meant to represent variations of the female form. It advertised the bottles using the phrase “beauty breaks the mould.”

As Jess Zimmerman wrote in PostEverything in May, most consumers found the bottles, well, dumb.

Dove’s new packaging raises a number of questions: Do all the bottles have the same amount of product? Are you supposed to buy the one that looks like you? Are you allowed to buy the ones that don’t look like you? Are we gearing up for a “Divergent”-style dystopia in which society is divided according to soap format?

Zimmerman expressed the same confusion that irate Dove users showed this weekend: “But the most important question is: What, exactly, is the point supposed to be?”

This post has been updated.

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