On Saturday, Dove Body Wash ran a Facebook ad which has angered the African American community and, in some cases, left African American women feeling betrayed.
Dove has a reputation for celebrating the beauty of all colors, ethnicities, shapes and sizes, so how can it be that this brand, trusted by African American women, can run an ad that seemingly tells those with darker skin that they would be more beautiful if they had white skin?
So go ahead and bleach that skin white as snow.
Unilever, owner of Dove, has apologized profusely and owned up to missing the mark. The widespread consumer takeaway was not at all the intended message.
How does something like this happen?
There are a number of possible explanations. Here are several:
No African Americans and/or individuals who live in African American culture were involved in the development and approval of the creative.
African Americans or those with authentic and in-depth knowledge of AA culture raised “red flags” and were ignored.
Those in charge of the development and approval of the creative execution consciously or subconsciously have a bias against dark skin and believe light and white skin to be complexion Mecca.
The client and agency followed a Total Market philosophy whose purpose is to capture top-line commonalities of targeted consumer segments, and not designed to respect critical sensitivities of specific ethnicities and cultures.
So now what?
Well, there has been serious talk in the African American community of boycotting all Dove products.
I’m sure that Unilever and its PR agencies are in full crisis management mode.
Also, Unilever has gone on record to say that they are accountable for this mistake, are not passing the buck, and will take a look at its internal systems to identify the necessary changes to make sure that such an offense does not happen in the future.
I know that Unilever, and its agencies, has encountered a teachable juncture that, if embraced, can significantly strengthen the effectiveness of their marketing to African American consumers.
I know this to be the case because one of my past clients faced a similar situation years ago. Toyota’s general market agency had run print ads and on-premise nightclub ads that incensed the African American community. Both Revs. Jesse Jackson, Sr., and Al Sharpton were calling for boycotts.
Toyota senior leadership became sincere about doing AA marketing correctly. They hired and empowered an African American agency, and I was the first VP/Account Director on that business.
Toyota management teams participated in AA “Cultural Immersions” addressing topics ranging from stereotypes to the national and global impact of African American change agents.
An advisory committee was put in place for a period of time as an added sensitivity screen for advertising.
New positions that had stewardship and accountability for authentic and effective AA marketing were created.
Basically, this client went from being on AA autopilot to being a leading investor and marketer in the AA space. The same can happen for Unilever.
Unilever has messed up with the African American consumer, but they now have the opportunity to course-correct.
Understand that because of the African American experience, Black women are not another version of Caucasian women. Yes, there are shared values and life principles, but there are just as many differences.
Recognize that beauty and hair is one of the most sensitive and complicated categories from an AA insight standpoint.
Get immersed in African American and any other cultures to which you want to connect.
Identify those in your organization and your agency partners who think that warmed-over general market creative, for hair and beauty, works as effectively with AA consumers as it does with White consumers; they need “Cultural Immersions” and other education to cause a shift in belief.
Please hire African Americans at Unilever and on the agency side. You need them. Clearly. And if you need Hispanics, hire them as well. Listen, respect their opinions. Their insight, intuition and recommendations DO count.
Unilever, I wish you luck. Achieving positive, enduring change in corporate culture is not an easy, proposition. It is however necessary to regain the trust and loyalty of your African American consumer base.
Ella Britton Gibson has 20 years of account management experience in African American-targeted advertising. We will share a major career announcement about Ella in November.