Sophie Perry is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.
When one thinks about advertisement campaigns, most of us only see the end product. In a world where ‘we are exposed ‘to as many as 5,000’  advertisements a day, our lives are saturated by images on social media, television, buses and billboards. Thus, we see enough of these advertisements on daily basis that we come to forget that there is a long and hidden creative process behind them – they do not simply appear as if by magic. The average consumer often does not realise the hours of research that go into creating logos, product promotions and advertisements, in particular the deep understanding of how we psychologically engage and interpret these images. It is for that reason that it is so perplexing, or perhaps telling, that Dove as a huge, multinational company with an equally huge marketing department did not anticipate the furious backlash its latest advertisement would receive.
For, at Dove, it seems it is 1817, not 2017.
The centre of the controversy is a three second GIF, posted to Dove’s Facebook page, aimed at advertising how Dove’s moisturising product is for all types of women. The advert shows three different women who each remove skin-toned shirts to reveal the next woman underneath, the controversial element being that a black woman removed her brown shirt in order to transform into a white woman with a white shirt. Unsurprisingly the campaign received copious amounts of backlash as it was suggested, first on social media and then in wider news outlets, that the GIF contained racially insensitive undertones. The perverse problem of the campaign being that it insinuated that using Dove makes you whiter or, in other words, that blackness is dirty and whiteness is clean. Now, while it may seem inane to pick apart the underlying meanings from a GIF, the message that Dove presents can actually trace its historical roots back over hundreds of years and has much to say about how Western society views racial difference, identity and wider colonial ideology.
It is most notable that this latest GIF is reminiscent of more than a century old Unilever soap advertisements, Unilever being the company that now owns Dove amongst many other brands. In the advertisement (see below) a white child is shown to be washing a black child with Pears Soap, the result being that the blackness of the black child is washed away leaving them white. While this advertisement would never make it to the public sphere today, for its overtly racist and supremacist content, it is certainly not a world away from Dove’s GIF. For while the adverts are from two different time periods the GIF is simply too reminiscent of the older advertisement, the notion of removing blackness has an unavoidable cultural history. The complete unawareness of the marketing team to this issue is almost laughable, if it wasn’t so serious, and begs the question of how it made it through multiple reviews with their superiors without any problem?
As mentioned above, the key component of both the Dove advertisement and the old Unilever one is that they position black skin as unclean and white skin as clean. This line of discourse perpetuates the notion that blackness is something to be cleansed of, particularly by black people themselves, therefore enforcing the superiority of whiteness. For, if blackness and black skin is considered dirty it is also negative, inferior and wrong while whiteness and white skin is the good, true and superior. In essence, this is a simplistic snapshot of the working method of colonial ideology which as an ideology functions as a system of ideas and ideals that uphold colonial domination. It is through this imperialistic method of creating a hierarchy through racial difference that enabled colonisers to subjugate the groups of people they colonised. This type imperialism thus becoming such a potent part of every element of Western society that it has almost become invisible, which would perhaps explain why Dove’s advertisement made it from the creative desk to a Facebook post. Model Munroe Bergdorf speaking on the issue on Good Morning Britain stating that, ‘It makes you wonder whether or not the crew is as diverse as the cast. I think that is where a lot of these diversity campaigns are going wrong is that the people making the decisions, there is no one saying “actually hold on, this might actually cause offense”’. The problem perhaps being, which may be best explored in a whole other article, that many companies want the badge of diversity without the diversity itself. Companies want to appear inclusive and intersectional to the public because, quite simply put, it makes for good business – why market to just one group when you can market to everyone? But do they actively want a 50/50 gender split in their offices, ethnic minorities in their management positions or a strong cohort of LGBT+ people? Probably not.
The effect of such advertisements, both in the past and today, has a much more personal and human effect than simply that of social media outcries and brand boycotts. By positioning dark skin as unclean it has become stigmatised as less beautiful than white skin, which can be clearly evidenced if you simply type ‘beautiful woman or handsome man’ into Google Images: the results are overwhelmingly white. From this it can be easily identified that there is both a correlational and causational link between such colonialist doctrines and how people of colour engage with their racial identities in contemporary Western society. Whereby, the market for skin lighteners is set to be a $31.2 billion industry by 2024 as lighter, whiter skin has become synonymous with ‘beauty, cultural refinement and personal success in several communities in Asia, the Middle East & Africa’.
With the market for an industry that benefits from the insecurities and self-hatred of People of Colour booming, one can’t help but ask ‘what can be done?’. While the answer is in no way clear cut, an important element certainly comes from Munroe Bergdorf’s aforementioned comments. As in any industry it is important to have representation of all kinds be it gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity, for this sort of diversity and representation enables the perspectives of companies, organisations and projects to be far more intersectional. In this way those creating products must be as representative as those who are utilising the products, problematic and insensitive elements therefore being managed before they would reach the public sphere. If Dove’s latest advertisement is anything to go by, representation is just as important behind the scenes of the beauty industry as on the face of it. For, it does not matter how many People of Colour you have promoting your product, if the promotion is steeped in historical and institutional racism.
Catlin Johnson, ”Cutting Through Advertising Clutter’, CBS, (2006) <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cutting-through-advertising-clutter/> [Accessed 16th October 2017].
 WordPress, ‘Pears’ Soap Advertisement Analysis’, https://thefutureisvisual.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/pears-soap-advertisement-analysis/> [Accessed 19th October 2017].
 Good Morning Britain, ‘Munroe Bergdorf on Dove: ‘I wonder about the diversity of the crew’, YouTube, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Z4KfWTyWLU> [Accessed: 19th October 2017].
Global Industry Analysts, Inc., ‘Obsession With Lighter Skin Tones in Asia, the Middle East & Africa Drives Opportunities in the Global Skin Lighteners Market’, <http://www.strategyr.com/MarketResearch/Skin_Lighteners_Market_Trends.asp> [19th October 2017].