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Dove adverts won’t wash well in Middle East

Dove was forced to apologize for a body wash advert in which a black woman appears to turn white after using the product. (AFP)
LONDON: Beauty brand Dove’s flopped body lotion campaign offers stern lessons for regional advertisers, according to Middle East marketing experts.
The personal care brand, which is owned by Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever, was globally derided on social media for releasing a series of “racist” images that appeared to show a black woman turning white after using the body lotion.
James Reynolds, founder of Dubai-based digital marketing agency, told Arab News that the furor could have been avoided if Dove had considered the context in which the advert would be seen.
He said: “They failed to consider how the message would transfer across all forms of content.”
The social media video, which has now been removed, saw a black woman peeling off her T-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath her skin. However, the longer 30-second TV advert also revealed a white woman undressing to reveal an Asian woman.
Reynolds said: “In its longest form — a 30-second TV commercial — the advert was well received. However, when clipped to three seconds (on Facebook), the ad took on a very different narrative.
“As content creators, we in the Gulf need to consider how our content will be repurposed across all channels by us and by others — and how that can affect the storyline.”
Agreeing with Reynolds, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff wrote in a column for UK current affairs magazine New Statesman: “If this version of the advert had been shared from the very beginning, the response may not have been as swift and sharp as it was. There was also apparently a second, longer advert — a 30 second TV commercial which showed seven women,” she said.
The black woman in the advert, Lola Ogunyemi told The Guardian newspaper that she had a positive experience with the Dove team and that she believes that the objective of the ad was to highlight that all skin is deserving of gentleness. But that doesn’t mean the original concerns aren’t valid, Brinkhurst-Cuff said.
Brinkhurst-Cuff added: “For years and years, black women have been told our skin color is unclean, dirty, something to be fixed. A solvable problem. It could be predicted that black women watching the advert would pick up an insinuation that by using Dove’s shower gel product you can ‘rectify’ your skintone.”
Austyn Allison, editor of marketing magazine Campaign Middle East, called out Dove for “going straight back to the Stone Age with an ad that was just plain racist.”
Allison said: “I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be — no one sits down to write a racist ad — and it was probably meant to be inclusive as women from different ethnicities show they are as one.
“But just that change from black to white around a cleaning product is fraught with history and connotation and memories of racism that will never go away. Especially at a time when black people are being killed by police as the ‘alt right’ rises in the US and one of the world’s best known PR agencies has destroyed itself by stirring racial tensions in South Africa.
“Now is not a time to be insensitive to race.”
Reynolds suggested that in the future Dove, and all brands, would do well to “test small before rolling out big.”
“I’d recommend using focus groups and then testing on a small audience before pushing advertising out to a wider audience,” the digital marketing expert said.
Following the global furor, Dove swiftly removed the adverts and apologized on Twitter: “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused,” it said.
Stephen Han, founder of Dubai-based Han Global Consulting, believes Dove’s misjudgment stems from “what is fundamentally a matter of respect and inclusion.”
He told Arab News: “I’m working with a client right now on developing their go-to-market marketing strategy and inclusion is necessarily a core value of any brand that wants to connect with today’s society.
“From an organizational standpoint, it’s not enough to avoid ‘bad things’. Only the pursuit of diversity can preclude the next major faux pas. It must happen at the top first and it must be genuine. The opportunity cost of making an inadvertent mistake is too great to ignore.”
Han said that while Dove has clearly “striven for diversity” in its campaigns, these values must be more deeply embedded in the company to be effective.
He added: “I’m sure they did strive for diversity. But who’s the ‘they’ who were striving? Was it a diverse team? Who was approving the campaign? Was it a diverse executive team? Were people of color fairly represented at the review and approval level? Was the video storyboarded by a diverse team?“