Now that the hype has almost died down, let’s take a minute to unpack the controversy surrounding the “racist Dove ad” that featured a Nigerian woman who takes off her top to reveal a white woman. Let us ask ourselves these questions: Are we upset by the advert itself, or the fact that it was done by Dove? Should we focus on Dove as a subsidiary or on its parent company, Unilever? Does our outrage spring from our readiness to feel victimised and are we therefore inclined to be defensive? Are people genuinely going to boycott Dove and other Unilever products? What does our loyalty to such products say about our perceptions of ‘quality’ and our attitudes to brand status? Lastly, have we stopped to think that even this negative publicity is still good for the brand on a marketing level?
Not the first tone-deaf campaign
The advert, which featured a black, a white and an Asian woman, was apparently intended to express transformation and the celebration of diversity. It was not the first tone-deaf campaign that Dove had naively approved of and deemed suitable: In 2015, the brand was called out for its description of skin tones on its self-tan lotions, with white skins being described as ‘normal’. In fact, it comes as merely the latest entry in a long list of Western beauty brands, including Nivea, another favourite among middle-class Africans, with its “White is purity” campaign, sending subliminal messages that we are cleaner when we are lighter. The messaging implies that being darker is undesirable and can be undone by simply using certain products. At least, that is how it appears at face value.
Spending time with people from various cultural backgrounds teaches me to always consider the role that ignorance plays as a barrier to understanding. I mean ignorance in its literal definition; a lack of knowledge about something. People must be exposed to something before they can learn about it. Sometimes the information we are exposed to as a people is limited to stereotypes and propaganda that have been mainstreamed in our respective locales, either deliberately or because there is a lack of voices to represent the alternative.
If Dove had more people of colour in their advertising team, those voices would have pointed out the trap that the brand was setting for itself.
For example, if Dove had more people of colour in their advertising team, those voices would have come forward and pointed out the trap that the brand was setting for itself. It is, of course, possible that whoever came up with the concept was motivated by a romantic notion of integration and a “different colours, one people” view of life. This is not a bad way to look at the world, given all that is wrong with it. However, factors such as privilege, based on socio-cultural and racial experiences, tend to cloud one’s grasp of reality. Research becomes crucial, therefore. Something as simple as a focus group involving women of colour would have been the sensible thing to do before releasing the ad. It is one thing to conceive an idea based on good intentions and another to investigate its implications.
It is one thing to conceive an idea based on good intentions and another to investigate its implications.
Why are we upset?
Are we angry because white supremacy has shown itself again? Or could it be that we are angry because we were reminded how precarious our sense of self is? Let’s be honest: Africa has no shortage of home-grown body-care products to choose from. In fact, the continent is the very source of the extracts that give those big brands their special touch and quality. Why, then, do we seek out some famous international brand’s lotion with shea and cocoa-butter extract, for example, when we have an abundance of local products to choose from? Should our anger not perhaps be directed at our own behaviour, which sees us not giving our stamp of approval to our home-grown brands and therefore not enhancing the perception of the quality and desirability of local brands?
Who is calling us out for the belittlement and undervaluing of our own products and, by extension, our abilities? Should we perhaps critically evaluate our own attitude towards locally produced goods in general? Is it so absurd to imagine ourselves setting the bar for foreign products based on what we already have, instead of going about it the other way around? How many of us are prepared to do the self-reflection required to dissect the implications of preferring Dove lotion over Shea butter directly from Ghana, simply because the packaging and presentation is a little different?
If we were being honest, the main reason we are seduced by foreign products is that their packaging and the perceptions created around them – quality, desirability, status – are so convincing. These brands prey on our (Africans) aspirations to be viewed as accomplished because we fall in a certain income bracket or live in a particular location, or wish to be something “better” than what we are. Let’s face it, no so-called ‘poor person’ is concerned about this advert because they cannot afford the up-market Dove products. Could it be that perhaps the problem here is not Dove, but us?
Integrity in the world of globalization
The latest Dove incident is its second recent offence, and it is surely not the last time that something like this will happen. A public apology will follow, we will go about our lives and we will forget – until the next episode. Then our newsfeeds will be flooded once again, we’ll share opinions, create memes, have discussions on power, race and cultural sensitivity – but rarely will we rethink our spending habits. We might stop using Dove or Nivea, but we’ll continue to wear clothing made by racist brands and use devices made by exploitative brands, while we look down on excellent products from our home countries and continent. We’ll get defensive when our self-hatred is put on blast. We’ll rationalize and say that our tastes and preferences have nothing to do with modes of production and that not everything has to be politicized – but we will turn around and say that white supremacy is the enemy.
If we were really managing our heritage as we should, then Dove wouldn’t even be a topic.
We are a generation of extremely intelligent and well-informed beings, with access to knowledge and resources that far exceed what our parents and their parents had. If we were really managing our heritage as we should, then Dove wouldn’t even be a topic because it would not have a market on this continent. The bottom line is that all we are to these brands is a market. The advertisements frame their intentions as human-centred but we know they are profit-centred – and because we know this, we hold the power. The sad thing is, as with other aspects of society, the powerful don’t know their power, and that makes it open season for the hunters.