Is The Dove Advert Racist or Insensitive?

You may have seen personal care brand, Dove, are in the spotlight in the press this week and it’s not good publicity.

I’ve been working in diversity for many years now, not many things shock me anymore, but even I was shocked when I saw this blunder from Dove latest advert.

The brand came under-fire for posting a gif of a black woman turning into a white woman supposedly after using the brands body lotion and it has sparked fury not  just with a common narrative around beauty and desirability in the beauty industries, but with racism, but with the depths of colourism; discrimination based on social meanings and class systems attached to skin tone, a global issue, not unique to, but most commonly known and rife within black and Indian communities.

The advert has also divided opinion on whether the advertisement was racist or simply just insensitive.

The definition of racism is: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior

It is the narrative and belief of the superiority to one race over another, seemingly changing skin tone, that is fuelling the linear that this advert has a racist connotation, intentionally or not.


The shock and divided opinion is coming from the confusion that a brand, that tries so hard to be consciously and attitudinally inclusive, could make such an obvious ‘error’. One would think that an inclusive brand should be more Woke, more aware, you would think that an inclusive brand should know better than to create an advert that turns a black woman white, a dangerous narrative that feeds into racial bias, the history and complexities of slavery and racism that depicts one race as more superior to another.

Another example of a detergent advert that caused outrage with a dangerous narrative inferring that ‘washing off black skin” will make a person more desirable.

Historical reminders of soap advertisements, were also shared on twitter via @ariqnasheed and @kawraj last night.

These adverts are all depicting one race as dirty, the other clean. A historical narrative that has been seen before in soap advertising. Featuring white and black characters, black depicted as a poor, drawing from historical context where slaves were not afforded the same rights as those who were white, because of the colour of their skin and their status. They were not allowed to wash.
A narrative that arguably could be seen as still present in the subliminal messaging of Dove’s current advert.

To add fuel to the fire, Dove previously came under attack in 2011 for connotations in a campaign that appeared to show women becoming cleaner as their skin tone got lighter.

The Independent reports;

It was unclear which market was targeted with the adverts, but makeup artist Naythemua, who first posted the images on Facebook, said the campaign was “tone deaf” and indicative of the messaging black people in the US receive about the colour of their skin….

The fact that this advert came to pass is a good example of what happens when boardrooms lack diversity.  I can confidently say this advert in its current edit would never have been cleared if Dove had diverse members of the team in positions of decision-making power, to highlight how culturally inappropriate it is…. This is a tough lesson in how desperately important it is to have diversity in business, not just in the superficial aesthetic of a campaign, but in your staffing..  If they had, this blunder could so easily have been avoided, perhaps by simply changing the order of process.

And this is where the other argument lies…. Others feel this advert is not racist –  just insensitive. That people of colour are actively ‘seeking out racism’ and making it into a racist issue when it’s just insensitive or ignorant. So lets explore this possibility.

(It’s worth noting, Dove removed the post and issued an apology)

Is the advert insensitive or racist?

None of us were in the boardroom when the decision to hit publish on this advert came to pass, so none of us truly know the intention, we can all speculate.  But what we must ALL become better aware of is the power of intention v’s impact.

Intent v’s Impact

Having awareness and understanding when marketing is key in successful communication. In fact it is absolutely vital. Intent can sometimes miss the mark and doesn’t always send the messages of a desired goal and when this happens, when harm is caused, the original intent becomes completely irrelevant and we must focus, acknowledge and take responsibility for the impact. For impact carries more power than intent.

Sensitivity is absolutely key.

Understanding the others point of view is vital in correcting miscommunication where harm has been caused. Understanding, why based on difference of culture, history, bias, and indeed, even privilege, why communication can land awry. Why people of colour are up in arms about the subliminal messaging in this advertisement based on the history of racial bias, current struggles with colorism and indeed racism, to better understand how our identities intersect in society. How our own background, experiences, and in turn privilege (for example if we have never experienced racism or oppression) can shield us from understanding and empathising with the impact.

Making the debate about the intent of the advert detracts from the narrative, it detracts from the offence caused and using intent becomes an easy and sometimes subconscious tool for deflecting criticism.  Whether or not we believe something to be racist or not when offence has been caused, can in turn contribute to oppression. Sometimes all we have to do is fess up. Acknowledge the less than desirable impact of our intent and seek positive steps and solutions to right the wrong, whether intentional or not.

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