But is it racism?

8 Jun

A couple of ads have really stirred up the online pot over the past few weeks.

First we have this print ad out of the UK for Cadbury’s Bliss chocolate, where someone named “Naomi” is pegged as a diva.

Cadbury Bliss chocolate's controversial ad using Naomi Campbell

Someone else named Naomi with the last name of Campbell freaked out and made wealthier people out of her lawyers. The suggestion was that the ad had racial overtones, comparing chocolate to a black woman.

I would have thought she was incensed by the reference to the diamonds,  given that she had allegedly received “blood diamonds” as a gift a few years back from Liberian leader Charles Taylor. But no.

Is it racism?

Then we have the latest Dove body-wash ads out of the US. Some unfortunate positioning of the models in the ad has been read as an inference that darker skin is the problem and lighter skin the desired result.

Dove body-wash's controversial ad featuring black, latina and white models

No heat on the claim that the soap makes your skin “visibly” more beautiful.

Take our poll and let us know what you think about the Dove ad.


26 Responses to “But is it racism?”

  1. Kathryn Lancashire June 8, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    I vote for neither, I don’t think it was intentional but it’s not a harmless mistake. How did that ad get through so many people without anybody seeing it?

  2. Doug Brown June 8, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    Yup, good point Kathryn. It’s hard to imagine it was intentional but somewhere along the way someone goofed up nonetheless. Dove is sure taking heat for approving it.

  3. Lisa Weeks June 8, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    I’m with Kathryn. It can’t be as simple as yes or no, racist or not racist. At any rate, it’s got a bunch of people talking about what racism looks like. That can’t hurt.

    p.s. Congrats on your big news.

  4. margriet aasman June 8, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    I am glad you brought this up. It hit me immediately when I saw the ad. I would like to say it was a harmless mistake, but because it was SO obvious, how could they have missed it. Come on, they have to take some responsibility for such a bad decision. So I am saying it was intentional. Also, the black model on the left is slightly larger than the white on the right… actually that is what hit me first. Bad, bad Dove.

  5. Leandy June 8, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    I feel that people often go looking for racism when there is none there. In fact, if you look at the Dove ad, the “before” skin is actually lighter because of the white “dry skin” lines. The “after” skin is a bit darker. So does that mean that darker is better? If the ad had come across my desk, I would have approved it as-is. And I’m the colour of the first model. If anything, I would have thought people might be upset that the model in front of the “before” is heavier than the other two. As with most things in life, it’s all a matter of perspective.

    As far as the Dairy Milk ad goes, gimme a break! No racism.

  6. Doug Brown June 8, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    Those are some great comments!

    > Lisa I have to feel on this one that there is a definite answer. Either you are racist in intent or not. Is accidental racism actually racism? Interesting question. And thanks for the grats!

    > Margriet, that was my first take as well – the weight of the models and how they got thinner as they got lighter. I still can’t imagine that the writer and art director set out to have a dig.

    > The issue of racism comes up constantly in forums that aren’t even about the subject. There are few touchier issues that I can think of. I wonder what the creative team makes of all this Leanne? Do you think they conceptualized the final look or did it just happen?

  7. Leandy June 8, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    I suspect that the Dove creatives are following a mandate to be colour-blind, age-blind, weight-blind — after all, that’s what the Dove brand has trumpeted (very successfully) for several years now. The casting call was probably for 3 models of varying ethnicities and body types. It’s obvious they are trying to cover the bases of what the brief asked for. I think it’s refreshing that they didn’t shoe-horn the black model into the “after” position. If we want to be free from racism, then the placement of the black model should be irrelevant. But I think I have a minority opinion (pun intended!).

  8. Scott M June 8, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Dove shouldn’t take the heat – this tendency of over the top political correctness is bull crap and PR people that would caution their clients/employers along this pablum road aren’t doing their job IMO, instead they are contributing to the overall problem. Sheesh!

  9. Shane June 8, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    I agree it’s unfortunate when PCness and not wanting to offend anyone stops good ideas from making it to market. *But* in the case of the Dove ad, the models’ races and weights are not part of the idea. In fact they distract from it because the order from darker/lighter and larger/smaller. That’s why (from a purely communications perspective) I find their inclusion damaging .

  10. Leandy June 8, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Hmm, Shane’s right — the progression is somewhat distracting. Darkest to lightest, heaviest to thinnest. So yes, from a communications perspective, distraction from your message is bad. (But I still don’t think the ad is racist.)

  11. margriet aasman June 8, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    I think the creative concept for this ad is really outdated and boring. Working from the idea of comparison, the trap was set from the start. With a record of doing outstanding work, and allowing ALL women equality in ALL areas, especially the oh so difficult one of beauty, they really failed. Bad, bad Dove.

  12. Doug Brown June 8, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    > You beat me with that comment Leanne. The elephant in the room is that all this darkest-to-lightest and heaviest-to-thinnest stuff happens in front of a backdrop of Before and After, further compounding things for Dove.

    > On the topic of the communications perspective, Shane we both know that concepts can look remarkably different after they’ve been casted and photographed. Might be some of that going on here.

    > Scott, the question is what the hell do you do about those voices because they keep coming through over and over and over. There is always something that is offensive. I have experienced outraged commentary around the most benign of ideas. Social Media makes it even easier for people to publicly gripe now, which can be scary for advertisers.

  13. Katherine Caughran June 8, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    I like your take Leandy – I think the advertisers were colour-blind in the placement – they are promoting beauty is more than skin-deep – if we treated everyone equally, why would we even consider how ‘racist’ the placement of a model would be? I once asked a friend if he could substitute as a Santa Claus at a children’s party when my husband couldn’t do it – he laughed and I didn’t understand why… he explained that people don’t ask skinny Indian males to play Santa Claus… personally I just thought he’d wear a pillow, but hadn’t even considered the skin colour as an issue…would I have been told I was making a racist joke had I asked someone that wasn’t a friend?

  14. Doug Brown June 8, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    For the record, here is Dove’s spin on the contentious ad:

    “The ad is intended to illustrate the benefits of using Dove VisibleCare Body Wash, by making skin visibly more beautiful in just one week. All three women are intended to demonstrate the “after” product benefit. We do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience.”

    Nowhere does it address your opinion Margriet that the idea just sucks. 😉

    > Katherine, maybe from my years in Asia seeing Chinese and Indonesian Santa Clauses I have an immunity to the impact! But I don’t know if that’s racism. No inference of racial superiority or denigration – just an unexpected juxtaposition. Much the same I imagine as seeing Wallace Shawn play Othello. 🙂

    Terrific comments!

  15. Felice June 8, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Cadbury’s fueled the racism debate a few years ago too with their chocolate people campaign: http://ow.ly/5dhYB

    There’s no doubt they were targeting Naomi Campbell, especially with the diamonds reference (good catch Doug) But they must have known she would retaliate. Especially as during her sucessful privacy lawsuit against Piers Morgan (back when he was newspaper editor) she testified how hurt she had been by the term “chocolate soldier” used to describe her in an article.

    Is this a premeditated cashing in on all the free publicity the resulting fracas has emitted? But do supermodels even eat chocolate?

  16. Doug Brown June 8, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    As far as I know, supermodels ONLY eat chocolate Felice.

    Interesting video for Cadbury’s. It makes me realize what a minefield exists out there for advertisers. With divas like Naomi Campbell swanning around out there, it’s hard not to want to have some fun though. As long as the audience loves it, advertisers will keep pushing that edge.

    Thanks for the insight and video support.

  17. Eugenia Parrish June 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    I have to admit that it took a second, maybe third look to realize that the boxes behind the models represented before and after SKIN. If skin was what they were talking about, why put semi-naked women in it at all? I had no trouble spotting what the fuss was about — my eyes initially went from the “before” model to the “after” model, though to be honest, my first reaction was “before and after what?”. In other words, I might not have seen it as racist, just stupid. Those pictures go through a lot of people before they’re published — in this PC age, how did so many drop the ball?

  18. Doug Brown June 8, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    My guess is the original ad layout probably didn’t look exactly like the finished ad Eugenia, but through casting it ended up that way. When you get real close to a job, sometimes you lose perspective. Is it stupidity or human oversight? I’m sure I’ve made a few cringe-worthy mistakes in my time so you can guess where I’ll lean. Thanks for the comment!

  19. Cynthia June 8, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    This ad is not racist unless that is what you want to see.

    It’s almost sad that so much energy is spent debating perceived racism when there are real racist issues that are still ignored. Perhaps if communications professionals spent more time pointing out real racism, we could do something about it. Making an issue out of these ads trivializes racism.

    That debate aside, in terms of the ad, what’s the negative racist message Cadbury is sending? That chocolate is bad? That rich chocolate in many flavours is really bad? They’re a chocolate company!

    For Dove, the same question applies. What’s the negative message? The ‘before’ and ‘after’ swatches are the same colour — though the smooth ‘after’ swatch looks darker to me. The diverse models all have smooth skin so I assume they’re all ‘afters’ — and all happy in their own skin. That’s racist?

  20. Doug Brown June 9, 2011 at 4:46 am #

    Thanks for your comment Cynthia. If you view the poll results you will see that currently 23% of the respondents find it racist. Advertising companies ignore this 23% at their clients’ peril. The post was written because it IS an issue for a fellow agency and their client. Gauging public sentiment and opening our minds to the myriad ways the audience perceives things is the intent here. I am interested in why the 23% found it so.

    I certainly agree with you that we could all be doing more about more consequential racist issues and I thank you for pointing that out.

  21. Cynthia June 9, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Absolutely agree, Doug, that we need to pay attention to what our various publics’ views are and ignoring them is to our peril. However, 23% respondents to a simple on-line poll, where the question is framed as racism, and even the negative option choice is faintly damning, doesn’t amount to good insight. It’s a divide and debate approach, not a conversation.

    As we know, a lot happens between the creation of a message, and how the message is perceived. I find it interesting that the one self-identified person who would be the object of racism didn’t find it racist. So I wonder if the question ‘is it racist” isn’t more a question of ‘it is non-PC”.

    Dove’s been taken to task in the US before, notably for their rather beautiful anti-aging ads which were subsequently banned in the US.

    You ask a tremendously interesting question in your last response — why do people find it racist. (which is very different from your first question, is it racist.) Now that’s a conversation! 🙂

    I’d ask a similar question of why the black model has been described as ‘heavy” in this discussion when she’s clearly of a healthy weight.

  22. Doug Brown June 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    OK fair point Cynthia.

    However the conversation that you see lacking in the poll develops in the comments section. “Let us know what you think” is inviting conversation around the issue. And it did develop.

    The simple online poll was a device to get people to consider the issue. But I can see how in the future I will want to expand on the potential learning opportunity. Thank you very much for your contribution to the discussion and your insight.

  23. Cynthia June 10, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    Hi, Doug. This is an important issue to consider. The Dove ad is about the superiority of moist skin over dry — not one colour over another, or a size over another.

    It’s regrettable that Dove, an organization that has worked hard to represent (and employ) women of all shapes, sizes and colours is being taken to task for “racism” when so few other companies employ or represent their products with anything but white, thin models.

    If this ad had featured only one skin colour (which would more than likely be white), chances are no one would even notice. We rarely consider why there is so little multi-hued representation in the fashion and beauty industry (or the ad business for that matter).

    The use of the black model here was also chastised because she has African American features as if those features are a stereotype, instead representative of who she is. Would it be better if these features weren’t so pronounced?

    Here’s a link to a Canadian National Film Board clip “The Colour of Beauty ” from the series, “Work for All” that I thought the discussion group might enjoy. It provides some great food for thought. (There are other valuable clips here, too). http://www.nfb.ca/film/colour_of_beauty

    Enjoyed the conversation, and thanks for hosting it..

  24. Felice June 22, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    Update: U.K. Authorities Determine the Cadbury Ad Referencing Naomi Campbell Is Not Racist. http://ow.ly/5o9W4

    Just in case it was keeping you up at night…

  25. l June 30, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    I believe that when companies attempt to be PC, it becomes too obvious in many instances. In casting calls, they likely ordered a range of woman in terms of skin color and weight..and that is what they got. It seems like it’s merely an unfortunate ordering of models in both respects…darker to lighter skin, and overweight to ‘normal’ weight. Coincidence? Yes. Yes, I think it is.

    Is anyone else tired of Dove’s (albeit successful and popular) beauty is more than skin deep message? It’s fine to celebrate robust and curvy woman, but I don’t feel it necessary, PC, or OK to tell overweight woman it’s OK to be that way. So, love yourself by going for a walk and THEN perhaps, you can shower off your big beautiful bold (and likely unhealthy body) with Dove. Off track of this thread, but I think it’s worth mentioning as you can tell by this ad, they painfully go out of their way to attempt to please everybody with color and weight ranges – and it backfired here. Would three average sized white woman gotten less or any complaints (yes, no larger woman in the mix)…etc. Don’t think there is any winning here.

  26. Doug Brown June 30, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    I’m definitely with you on your final point. There is virtually no way to win when you try to please everybody. Ads will always be criticized… for being too strong, too weak, for being offensive or insipid, for being on too often, for being too PC. You have to know your audience and deliver to them…and just accept that you will not make everybody happy.

    Thanks for the that comment.

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