For Dove and its parent company, Unilever, the past weekend has demolished the personal care products brand’s reputation after 13 years of success celebrating, and garnering much praise, for its “Real Beauty” campaigns.
As many of us now know, a brief ad on Facebook showed a black woman taking off her top to reveal a white woman. The white woman then removed her top to reveal a Latina woman.
Unfortunately for Dove, few viewers could get past the frames devoted to the young white woman. Considering Dove’s history of showcasing women of all backgrounds, shapes and skin hues, for some observers, it is difficult to fathom that Dove’s marketers and social media team were truly driven by racist intent.
Then again, Dove had run similar poorly-conceived ads in the past. A 2011 print campaign clumsily put a black woman in a “before” and a white woman in an “after” pane in an attempt to tout the product line’s qualities (the woman in the “after” pane, many pointed out, was also thinner.) A couple years later, Dove marketed a body lotion that was supposedly formulated for “normal to dark skin.”
Hence the skepticism, and then fury, when Dove tweeted a couple milquetoast apologies as the weekend dragged on. Saturday, the brand said it had “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.” Yesterday, the company issued a longer apology, and said it was “re-evaluating our internal processes” to prevent the company from making similar mistakes in the future. Unfortunately for Dove, many were not buying into those explanations.
“I’m not sure why these people think that we are all stupid,” wrote D. Watkins on Salon. “We know ads send multiple types of messages, especially in a soundless GIF where all you can see is a black woman turning white.”
This year has been brutal for some of the most widely known brands. United was nailed after the violent removal of a passenger from one of its planes made endless rounds on social media. Uber found itself in the public’s cross-hairs for many reasons, including its clumsy maneuvers during the first round of the Trump Administration’s travel ban. PepsiCo had to wipe more than egg off its face after an absurd Kylie Jenner advertisement went viral.
But as is the case with many of these social media and advertising fiascos, the pallid apologies make a terrible situation far worse. And for a brand that has been determined to celebrate the “ordinary woman” – even though some ideas, such as various curvy-shaped bottles, thankfully never got past the whiteboards in a conference room – the fact no one within Dove or its external advisors stopped to think that the ad could be taken the wrong way raises plenty of questions.
“Maybe they should have 'real people' create the ads rather than just starring in them,” said Chris Allieri, the principal of a New York-based branding and marketing agency, in an interview with Business Insider yesterday.
Meanwhile, Unilever, owner of the Dove brand, has shown that it has refused to take on this crisis. As of press time, the company has not issued any statement on its web site’s media relations section. Spokespersons for the company have also not replied to TriplePundit’s request for their take on the controversy.
Even though the graveyard of failed social media campaigns gone awry is becoming filled to capacity – Starbucks, McDonald’s and KitchenAid are just a few examples – Dove’s headache shows that the surge of social media is more than about allowing for communication between companies and their customers to no longer be a one-way messaging street. But caution is needed before such conversations are launched in the first place.
Brands cannot just assume their social media conversations need as much care as their traditional print and media campaigns. In fact, the argument should be that social campaigns need to be even more carefully conceptualized and executed. Otherwise, a misstep can become a catastrophe for a company, and the resulting firestorm will become even more difficult to extinguish.
Image credit: Screenshot
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.