Dove was ready to open a big new campaign for Dove Body Wash, with a long-form video showing women of all colors and ethnic backgrounds stripping off skin-toned tees, each woman morphing into the next as they peeled off their shirts, all happy with their glowing skin. But a social media GIF launched ahead of the video showed only a dark-skinned woman “turning into” a white woman, giving the impression of a “before” and “after” process. This gave rise to immediate accusations that Dove was perpetuating a centuries-old meme: dark skin is “dirty,” and white skin is “pure.”
Dove’s marketing team failed to provide context before the campaign release, making the error costly and embarrassing… so embarrassing that Dove had to pull the entire campaign. Once the uproar had started, no one wanted to hear about Dove’s intentions, or see the long-form video. Worse, it’s not the first time Dove was called out for the very same racist meme.
Washing Away Goodwill
A 2011 Dove campaign showed three women—a black woman, an Hispanic woman, and a white woman—positioned against images showing dry skin, and softer skin after using Dove body wash. The black woman was standing under the “before” image, the white woman under “after,” with a brown-toned woman in the middle. Image often trumps words in our visually-oriented culture. At first glance, and even on second and third glance, it looked like Dove was showing a transition from dark to light skin. Then as now, Dove was forced to withdraw the campaign following a media and social uproar.
How could Dove make the same ham-fisted mistake twice… and for the same product? The sad part is, Dove could have avoided the entire kerfuffle by reversing the sequence of their social media gif: Asian to white to black. Was there no one on the marketing team who questioned the GIF’s repeating the cringeworthy 2011 error?
Dove is not alone in getting the “tone” wrong. Nivea has been called out repeatedly for their “white is purity” themes. And there is a long, sad history of selling soap using black children to represent dirtiness. The fact that social media-enabled white supremacists often celebrate such not-very-subliminal racist marketing does not help brands dealing with these self-inflicted crises. Meanwhile brands catering to black audiences struggle with trying to grow their markets. Shea Moisture, who for years focused marketing toward a black audience, came under fire in April for trying to expand their sales by targeting a broader (white) audience.
It is not just skin or hair care brands that suffer from failing to pay attention to heightened racial sensitivities. Late in October, Kellogg Company had to revise Corn Pops artwork because of author Saladin Ahmed’s viral tweet of their package, showing a lone “brown” corn pop character doing janitorial duties in the midst of a scene of corn pops just having fun. “Why is literally the only brown corn pop on the whole cereal box the janitor?” asked Ahmed. Why indeed?
And yes, these details matter. Research has demonstrated that children of color develop low self-esteem at horrifyingly young ages because of not seeing their own images positively reflected in books, school curriculums, advertising, the media and pop culture, or seeing only negative images. Conversely, white children absorb these images, too, learning subliminal racism at a young age.
Emotional, Not Rational
Paul Friederichsen, partner at brand consultancy The Blake Project, recently wrote about how frequently marketers make assumptions about people’s behaviors that are simply not accurate. We assume consumers follow a strictly rational, predictable path from need/desire to purchase… that our ideas are so clear to us, the creators, that they need no context or further explanation. Instead, we are all emotion-driven creatures who make irrational leaps, detours, and contortionist decisions in which reason plays only a tiny part. When ideas are presented as images with no context, reactions can come straight from our “lizard” brains, drawing on pure emotion.
Friederichsen pointed out that we need to consider not just the emotional consumer, but the very climate of emotion in the surrounding culture. Currently, racial sensitivity is running very high. Failure to account for this sensitivity, however well-intended the marketing strategy, can open centuries-old wounds of cultural racism. Understanding the emotional climate is critical for modern marketing; brands must strike the right tone, or suffer the reaction of social-media-enabled consumers.
While some brands err on topical issues by accident—or simply without thinking—others invite the storm of disapproval through poorly timed statements on divisive subjects. Papa John’s recently saw its stock prices fall 13% over the two weeks between Papa John’s CEO blaming a sales slump on the NFL-based #TakeAKnee movement (the pizza firm is an NFL sponsor), and the close of stock trading on November 15. Worse, the alt-right, a hotbed of racism and white supremacy, openly adopted Papa John’s as “their” pizza company, forcing the firm to issue a sharply worded statement (and rude Twitter image) disowning Neo-Nazi fans.
Other brands, including New Balance and Wendy’s, have had to take similar actions in the recent years. Where once brand consultants advised brands to stay away from political issues, many today are advised to proactively take positions so there is no question what they stand for. Brands are also focusing more on crisis management—creating and training response teams, and trying to anticipate potential issues so they can shut down crises before they blow up into brand-damaging debacles.
Reading the Emotional Climate
Brands today are being asked to be more activist and “woke” than at any time in modern marketing history. If well-established brands miss the mark so badly—and repeatedly—how can less practiced brands hope to avoid the backlash of consumer ire?
Here are a few tips for brand managers:
- Strive to build diverse creative teams; a broader perspective can help brands avoid unintentionally poking emotional sore spots.
- Get outside reactions to a big campaign strategy. Test creative work to see if emotional climate could upset an otherwise sound approach.
- Be aware of emotional topics in trending cultural debates. Understand that audiences live in the daily culture, not in a vacuum where brand messaging is “pure,” and clear of all other perceptions and influences.
- Plan a launch carefully, and include a review of emotional climate and trending themes as part of the pre-launch check.
- Decide in advance whether to stand up to negative conversation or withdraw a campaign effort in the face of social media backlash; what is the cost either way?
- Monitor reactions and conversation around the launch, and have a response procedure in place in case of negative trends.
- Understand that cultural sensitivities cannot be “managed.” They exist, and brands should acknowledge them and be respectful of those who express them.
- Learn from mistakes. Repeating the same culturally insensitive errors can irreparably damage long-term brand goodwill.
See also: Brands Open Mouths, Insert Own Feet