The Dove Ad Is What Happens When 'Diversity' Is Just A Buzzword

Using black people in ads without considering our history is an all-too-common mistake.

Dove’s online ad featuring black women gleefully transforming into a white woman is not the first racially tone-deaf ad to draw the ire of the public, and it certainly will not be the last. 

There’s a clear cycle, where a racially insensitive ad is released, then sparks a flurry of outrage and criticism and accusations of racism online. As the controversy builds to a crescendo, the company pulls the ad, and issues an apology that does not speak to ways in which it plans to prevent this from happening again. In this cycle, the apology and the promise to do better next time are simply a prelude to another bad attempt at appeasing the critics.

What we’re left with is yet another heated internet debate that leans so heavily on the dichotomy of “racist” vs. “non-racist” that companies fail to recognize the nuance of these ideas, then “remedies” the problem with more tokenizing. 

In the recent Dove ad for Facebook, which drew criticism on Friday after a model who goes by Naythemua brought attention to it, a black woman pulls a brown t-shirt over her head to reveal a fair-skinned redhead. This is the part that got many people upset and drew charges of racism, although many were also quick to point out that as the ad continues, the white woman lifts up her shirt and morphs into a woman who appears to be non-white with a more tan, olive complexion

The fact that this third transformation was largely ignored during the internet’s outrage spiral, some have suggested, is proof enough that the ad really wasn’t “racist,” and that black people were just looking for something to be angry about in this increasingly racially-fraught climate. 

Racism has the unfortunate tendency to be viewed by so many as a black and white thing. Things that are racist, then, must be intentionally and explicitly so for criticism to be acknowledged. It’s the difference between the “Whites Only” sign on the restaurant door, and the restaurant that will seat black patrons, yes, but take forever to actually serve them. 

Debating about how racist this specific ad was, whether marginally so or super racist, isn’t exactly productive. We’ve established, time and time again, the propensity of large corporate juggernauts to release racially and socially tone-deaf ads over and over and over again.

What is perhaps more relevant to this conversation is the effectiveness of outrage-driven callouts. Because the Dove ad, in all its awkwardness, was clearly a product outrage spirals of the past. It was a shoddy attempt at diversity with a capital D, in a consumer age when inclusiveness, body positivity, and “representation” have been co-opted as marketing tools.

In a statement to Reuters on Monday, Dove clarified that the video “was intended to convey that Dove body wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong.”

This is an understatement. Dove’s latest controversial ad is what happens when corporate America half-asses diversity.  

This isn’t the first time Dove and its parent company, Unilever, has gotten it wrong. In 2011, the company came under fire for a poorly-executed ad which seemed to suggest that a black woman’s skin represented “before” and a white woman’s skin “after” in an ad for shower gel. The ad, again, was an attempt to be inclusive, but the imagery contradicted its intended message. 

For over a decade, Dove has rolled out an ongoing “Real Beauty” campaign that seeks to reject the harsh and non-inclusive beauty standards generally seen in mainstream advertising. Dove has also enlisted the talents of women of color like Shonda Rhimes to create video content that furthers this “real women” initiative. 

Meanwhile, Unilever, which also owns major brands including Vaseline and Pond’s, manufactures skin whitening products like Fair and Lovely popular throughout Asia and Africa which can be damaging to the skin and perpetuate colorism in black and brown communities. 

With all the contradictions that Dove and Unilever wade through, it isn’t really any wonder that this ad, and this outrage, occurred. Shonda Rhimes is a flashy signal of diversity in the foreground, but in the background, how are decisions getting made, and who is making them? 

When “diversity” is inauthentic, it shows. It manifests itself in ways that creators, no matter their good intentions (a dubious concept when profit is involved), fail to anticipate because they are more concerned with ticking off boxes and filling quotas than they are in truly interrogating the ways in which the advertising industry fails marginalized people.

Including women of color in advertising is meaningless if our images are used as a means to an end ― rather than as a way to actually connect with us as consumers.