On Soap and Apologies

This weekend, Dove soap was forced to pull a Facebook ad which appeared to show a black woman miraculously turning into a white woman as a result, presumably, of the purifying power of their soap.

The full narrative here is, of course, complicated. As Lola Ogunyemi, the black model featured at the top of the ad explains:

There were seven of us in the full version, different races and ages, each of us answering the same question: “If your skin were a wash label, what would it say?”

So, you can see, perhaps, where Dove was hoping to go with this ad. The intended narrative wasn’t about a black woman cleansing herself into a white woman, but about how, despite our seeming differences, we all have skin and therefore all need to buy soap.

It’s not the worst pitch I’ve ever heard.

The problems here, however, are many. The version of the ad which garnered so much attention featured only three women from the apparently diverse cast and began with Ogunyemi transforming into a white model.

This in itself is enough to raise concern. There is, unfortunately, a long history of racism in soap ads. See, for example Cook’s Lighting Soap and Vinonlia Soap. And such problematic advertising isn’t just in the past: in 2011, Dove had to remove another ad which seemed to imply that black skin was “dirty” while white skin was “clean.”

So you can see, perhaps, why the ad caused so much offense.

As Ogunyemi said, “There is a lack of trust here, and I feel the public was justified in their initial outrage.”

And if the ad wasn’t bad enough, I personally was rather disappointed in Dove’s apology:

As a part of a campaign for Dove body wash, a 3-second video clip was posted to the US Facebook page which featured three women of different ethnicities, each removing a t-shirt to reveal the next woman. 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. It did not represent the diversity of real beauty which is something Dove is passionate about and is core to our beliefs, and it should not have happened. We have removed the post and have not published any other related content. This should not have happened and we are re-evaluating our internal processes for creating and approving content to prevent us making this type of mistake in the future. We apologize deeply and sincerely for the offense that it has caused and do not condone any activity or imagery that insults any audience.

Giving the impression – accidental or not – that you think black skin is dirty goes far beyond “missing the mark.”

As a reformed marketer who used to get homework assignments to write brand apologies in grad school, I’ve been thinking about what kind of apology I would have penned.

The problem, I think, with the actual apology, is that it tries too hard to remain neutral. It is seeped in meaningless, corporate language that comes off as insincere and primarily aimed at minimizing PR damage. It doesn’t really say “we care” so much as it says, “please don’t stop buying our products.”

In some senses, this is a wise strategic maneuver. Politics of any kind has long been considered the third rail of advertising, and conventional wisdom says that political stances should be avoided at any cost.

The problem is, that doesn’t work in a world where everything is political. It doesn’t work in a world where failing to say anything isn’t neutral, but tacitly complicit. In world where black men are being murdered in the street and incarcerated at alarming rates, you can’t respond to concerns of racism with a shruggie and an “our bad.” If you want to apologize, you need to do more than that.

Interesting, another story in the headlines this weekend came from the NFL, where Vice President Pence walked out of a game after some players knelt during the national anthem. Afterwards, I was struck by the statement of 49ers player Eric Reid:

This is what systemic oppression looks like – a man with power comes to the game, tweets a couple things out and leaves the game with an attempt to thwart our efforts.  

And in many ways, that’s what the Dove ad – and the inevitable “racist or not?” debate that followed – comes down to.

This is what systemic oppression looks like.

It’s not Dove’s fault they made an ad that was interpreted as racist. It is the collective fault of a society in which white is implicitly assumed to mean better. Of a society in which certain perspectives and narratives are constantly and consistently marginalized and pushed out of the collective consciousness. How many people of color worked on that Dove ad, do you think? How many people of color were involved in the concept? In the editing?

The ad isn’t the disease, it is a symptom.

As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve become even more disappointed that Dove didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. That they didn’t apologize more fully and meaningfully. The ad was problematic, sure, but if they were serious about being a bastion of diversity, the mistake also set them up for heroism.

They could have come out so strong on this, could have come out acknowledging that they failed – that we all fail, because we’re embedded in a system of white supremacy where it’s easy, from a position of privilege, to miss the offense you can cause. Because no advertisement has ever implied that “people like you” are dirty, it never crossed your team’s mind that this could be a concern.

They could have said that they’re doing their best to unlearn harmful social norms, to educate themselves to do better in the future. They could have said that mistakes are inevitable, and they appreciate people calling them out when they happen. They could have said that we’re all a little bit racist because we live in a racist society. They could have said they’re doing their best to change that, to fight against it every day.

They could have said so much in their apology. They could have said so much more than a half-hearted “missed the mark.” They could have – and they should have. That’s what I would recommend if I were on Dove’s PR team.

Of course – this may be the reason I don’t work in corporate advertising.

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