With its latest 'racist' ad, Dove may have wrecked 13 years of pro-female marketing driven by its 'Real Beauty' campaign

  • Dove is hardly the first to first marketer to find itself embroiled in a public relations crisis this year, but its brand is likely to take a bigger hit than others, say experts.
  • This is because the digital ad — which is being slammed for what many perceive as carrying an overtly racist message — flies in the face of everything Dove has been trying to say about women over the past decade with its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.
  • Dove’s screwup also once again highlights the delicate place that marketers occupy in the age of social media, where a consumer mob can quickly jump on a misstep and cause it to escalate far beyond the brand’s control.

Dove is the latest marketer to find itself in hot water, after it ran what many see as a racist ad on Facebook last week.

The beauty brand posted a 3-second video on its US Facebook page on Friday, showing a black woman removing her top to reveal a smiling white woman underneath. On Saturday, the brand said that it had removed the clip in a tweet, and also apologised.

While the Unilever brand is hardly the first to find itself embroiled in a public relations crisis this year, Dove is likely to take a bigger hit to its brand than others, including Pepsi (which was hammered earlier this year for a Kendall Jenner-starring ad), say experts.

That is because the Dove ad isn’t just tone-deaf. More problematic is that the ad’s message seem to stands staunchly against everything that the company’s much-praised, pro-female marketing has stood for over the past decade. That campaign featured messaging such as “You’re more beautiful than you think.”

“The Pepsi mishap seems small compared to this ad by Dove and Unilever,” said Chris Allieri, principal of Mulberry & Astor, a New York-based public relations, branding and marketing agency. “For a company that has professed to embrace ‘real beauty’ by showcasing everyday women, this misstep is unconscionable.”

With this unforced error, the company has unravelled the entire premise behind its uber-successful 13-year-old “Real Beauty” campaign, agreed Erich Joachimsthaler, founder and CEO of branding strategy firm Vivaldi Partners. The Dove “Real Beauty” ads have long centered around rejecting standard, racially insular notions of beauty while vowing to feature “real women of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, hair colour, type or style.”

“Dove’s brand has been built on this unique and well-communicated belief system,” he said. “And this ad undermines the very brand value for which Dove stands.”

Dove has not only built its brand firmly on the back of “Real Beauty,” but its parent company Unilever too has avidly embraced a role as a champion of diversity in the advertising and marketing industry.

Unilever is at the forefront of an industry group called the “Unstereotype Alliance,” tasked with proactively coming up with ways to make ads less stereotypical. The group wasn’t just launched with much fanfare at the Cannes Festival this summer, but also lauded by Unilever marketing chief Keith Weed during his panels at Advertising Week just two weeks ago.

“When your ad is being called ‘racist’ by people across social media, you’ve done a lot more than ‘miss the mark,'” said Mulberry & Astor’s Allieri. “It just goes to show that the reality is a long way from Cannes to Main Street. Maybe they should have ‘real people’ create the ads rather than just starring in them.”

What makes the crisis worse is that this is hardly the first time that Dove has caused mass outrage, with many people seeing the ad as just the latest in a string of marketing efforts from Dove that elevates white beauty above that of women of colour.

In 2011, for example, the brand apologised for an ad for Dove VisibleCare body wash, which seemed to show a black woman as the “before” photo and a white woman as the “after” photo, with “more beautiful skin.” And in 2012, Dove faced criticism for advertising Summer Glow Lotion for “normal to dark skin.”

“This would be a crisis of extreme proportions even if it was a one-off,” said Matt Rizzetta, CEO at brand communications agency North 6th Agency. “But it’s not the first time that it’s happened to them and that’s why lands them a place alongside the biggest brand crises of the year, including United and Uber.”

Dove’s widely derided ad also once again highlights the delicate place that brands occupy in the age of social media, where a consumer mob can quickly jump on any perceived slight and cause it to escalate far beyond the brand’s control. Like Uber and United, Dove has lost control of its narrative, with consumers calling for a boycott of the brand with the hashtag #BoycottDove.

“I don’t question their intent, but I do question their approval process, their execution and general common sense,” said Rizzetta. “While social media requires a faster turnaround and a shorter response time, there need to be ample checks and balances to ensure that the sensitivity of the message is at par with speed and response time.”

Dove responded to Business Insider’s request for comment, saying that the short video was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, “but we got it wrong.” The brand also said the video “did not represent the diversity of real beauty, which is something Dove is passionate about and is core to our beliefs” and that it was “re-evaluating our internal processes for creating and approving content to prevent us making this type of mistake in future.”

But if the brand wants to overcome the disaster moving forward, it must not only put an efficient crisis communications plan in place, but also “walk the walk,” said experts.

“Launching an ‘Unstereotype Alliance’ at an advertising party with lots of rosé at the beach or fancy yacht events at Cannes is just a lot of talk,” said Joachimsthaler. “They need to walk the talk.”

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