Dove apologized Saturday following outcry over an advert it published to Facebook that many considered to be racist.
In the current cultural moment, when racial divisions are being rubbed raw by debates over immigration, symbols of the Confederacy, police violence and the right to protest, soap maker Dove has learned the hard way that even the best intentions can spark a firestorm.
Over the weekend, Dove posted and then removed a three-second video from Facebook because some found it racially insensitive. Dove, a unit of Unilever, said the clip had been conceived as a way to celebrate the beauty in diversity, showing a black woman morphing into a white woman who then transitions to another woman of color.
Not long after the ad was posted, criticism rushed in. Then a frame grab from the original video, focusing on the black woman taking off a T-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath, spread across social media. The controversy shows how the fluid, viral nature of social media can escalate a situation, particularly during a time in which tensions are at a fever pitch.
“If you take an individual picture out of a longer story … it can have different meanings,” says Allen Adamson, a branding expert and founder of Brand Simple Consulting, a New York-based consulting firm. “It’s really hard to control and manage your story because anything can be taken out of context, especially in a very polarized marketplace.”
Looking at just the images of the first two women, some felt the meaning could be construed to suggest that whiteness represented cleanliness. But the full video clip, showing the three women, made a different impression on some viewers.
Several online commenters on the Instagram page for The Shade Room, a celebrity news site that had posted the full video early Monday, said they did not see a problem with the Dove clip. “A lot of people realized they jumped on conclusion way too quick, over two pictures,” said one viewer.
But when Lindsay Ayers, 27, a law student in Chicago-Kent College of Law saw the imagery of the black and white women, it “appeared to be … perpetuating the long-standing belief and beauty standard that lighter skin is more beautiful than darker skin which is wrong and deeply offensive to women of color.”
After seeing the three-second video, Ayers was confused about the messaging. “I am unclear on why the women had to remove their shirts and become someone else,” she said. “Regardless of what Dove was attempting to convey, the consumer received it as blatant racism. They have to take a hard look at their creative process and what their audience expects from them as a business who has branded themselves to be on the forefront of changing beauty standards.”
Dove said in a statement that the video clip “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity.”
After it began to receive negative feedback and removed the post on Saturday, Dove said in its statement that “we got it wrong … 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 future.” The company declined to comment for this story beyond the official statement.
Andrew Selepak, a professor at the University of Florida and director of the graduate program specializing in social media says that when only the images of the black and white women were shown “it is pretty cringe-worthy and reminiscent of early 1900s ads … This is not the first time Dove has received criticism over one of their ads, so they should have been more careful.”
A previous Dove advertisement showed women of color “Before” and a white woman “After” using the product. And Some have criticized Dove for wording on its Dove Summer Glow moisturizing lotion bottle saying it is meant for “normal to dark skin.” Another campaign in May drew criticism after Dove’s U.K. division posted a video online promoting six limited-edition bottle shapes meant to evoke the different body shapes of women.
Dove isn’t the only major brand that has drawn criticism over its approach to race in recent months. A Pepsi ad featuring model and reality star Kendall Jenner sparked a torrent of tweets, mocking memes and late-night comic monologues when it was unveiled in April. In the commercial, Jenner abandons a model shoot to join a passing protest and makes her way to the front of the crowd. When Jenner hands a Pepsi to a police officer who takes a sip, the demonstrators roar their approval and erupt in celebration. Critics said the ad trivialized the “Black Lives Matter” movement against police violence and was a stark reminder of the need for more diversity among decision-makers in the ad industry.
And there were suggestions online that Dove might have created this latest controversy as a stunt for media attention. But Sekepek is doubtful. “If they had not had a problem just a few years ago for something similar, maybe,” he said. “But in 2017, with all of the issues going on surrounding race, this would be a terrible time to try and use that to get attention.”
Danielle Balfour, 22, a student at the University of Memphis, said her younger sister called after seeing the still that focused on the black woman morphing into someone white. She asked Valfour “what is wrong with our color and why do people want to wash it off? Why would they want to change?”
Ironically, Dove has spent years cultivating a Real Beauty campaign, one with a “much more inclusive message,” Adamson said.
Dove should engage with people criticizing the brand online to salve the wounds, says Matt Rizzetta, brand expert and CEO of North 6th Agency, a New York City-based public relations and social media agency.
“This is not beyond repair,” Rizzetta said. “But they have two strikes against them, and one more could be crippling.”
More: Dove sorry for racially insensitive Facebook ad
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