Yellow bone

Last year, Dove was in hot water for featuring the ad where a black woman becomes white after using Dove. This ad was not a creative mishap. A mishap like this simply does not happen at a multinational the size of Unilever. They have more cross-checks than a pre-flight take off of a 747. Unilever is a marketing powerhouse that fosters the growth of their brands. They are not in the business of killing their products or worse, pissing off their customers. Moreover, many of the best marketers in the country and indeed the world, are trained at Unilever. I know this because I have worked with these marketers. They love their brands as if they are human babies. Brand teams are usually as diverse as their products: multi-racial, different genders and age groups. Brand campaigns are cross-referenced globally and have to meet strict brand and campaign guidelines.  Furthermore, they are often tested in formal consumer research locally.  Even when there is less perceived risk, brand managers will likely test them within Unilever … all in an effort to avoid such “mishaps”. The ad agencies that work on these campaigns often have limited creativity due to global campaign restrictions and guidelines. So, if you think that the Dove campaign was the best of the best simply having a bad day, you would be mistaken. Pilots don’t get paid to fly planes, they get paid NOT to crash them.

So, what happened in this crash? Well … let’s open the black box and see.  (See what I did there?) J Almost half of all plane crashes are due to human error. In the early days of aviation, the biggest cause of human error crashes was poor communication.  Younger pilots never corrected captains as they assumed that the captains were always aware of any errors. What went wrong in this Dove campaign was that everyone assumed that if it passed the previous step and was signed off, it means that someone saw it but thought it was a non-issue. But why would all these diverse people allow the ad to get to production and even launch with no one raising an alarm?

I think the real reason for this is that the campaign was trying to communicate the product’s skin lightening properties. All the marketers in this campaign understood this and so did their ad agencies. All the black and white marketers involved in this campaign understood that a Global Industry Analysts report declared that the skin-lightening industry sales would hit $23 billion by 2020. Their “vision” was 2020I. J  In their “focus” of making their product compete for the skin-lightning share of wallet, they lost “sight” of the sensitivity that this might agitate people who knew nothing of the strategy but would just see the ad as just that, an ad. In “hindsight”, what was an obvious faux pas was lost to the marketers. They could not see the forest for the trees. When they got called out for being racist, they were probably genuinely shocked.

FMCG rely on comparative advertising. You, as a marketer, are hired to get your brand to become a category leader. You become a category leader by showing the consumer why your brand is better than the rest. Often, you even compete with your own brand. When I was a product manager in my early days at a software company, often the latest version of the product would compete with the previous version. Millions were spent to show consumers why the new and improved product was better and why they needed to upgrade. This is especially hard when you are a category leader. FMCG is about making whites whiter and brights brighter. It is about showing you your wrinkles or cellulite and after 8 days of using our product, voila a visible difference and improvement.

When it dawned (Dawn is a Unilever skin brand) on them what they had done, they looked in the warehouse for vanishing cream but unfortunately, that was still in R&D and had not yet gone through the human trials. The only other option was to tell the truth and say that they were targeting the millions of black and brown-skinned customers who want skin-lightening creams. The problem with the truth is that you can’t handle the truth (said in a Jack Nicholson voice). This, I guess, was not much of an option. It was easier just to apologize and hope it blows over and never gets repeated.

It is interesting to me that we can make whites whiter and blacks whiter but making blacks white is racist. (Read that again).  It is even more interesting to me that according to Global Industry Analysts report, skin-lightening sales are projected to hit $31bn in 2024, a jump of $10bn in just 4 years. This is exceptional industry growth.  Both brown and black-skinned men and women are driving these astronomical sales numbers.  Demand is fueling supply. So, who is racist here? The people demanding the product or the people who can’t keep up with the demand? Was the consumer right to be offended if it is common cause that there is a huge market that wants to be white-er?  In any event, I believe offense can never be given, only taken. Offense is not on the supply side of the curve, it’s on the demand side … much like the skin-lighteners. One more cliche for good measure, it seems to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. How is it that in 2018, people of colour are wanting to be more white? Is there something more deep-seated here?! Is it not time for self-introspection? I think we need to move beyond the surface and have a frank talk: a deep conversation about identity.

Racism is more than just skin-deep.

Racism is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” According to this definition, the recent H&M advert was definitely racist. Donald Trump’s comments about Haiti and Africa being s***hole countries, are definitely racist. The Dove advert, on the other hand, is in a grey area. It is in the realm of public opinion. If enough people are offended and believe it is racist, then it is so. But let me ask this question this way: would the Dove campaign been considered racist if it had a black woman who turns into a light-skinned Indian or a Latina woman? Would an advert be racist if it shows a black woman with natural hair “turning” into a Brazilian woman with straight hair? [Side note; did you know that there are virtually no black people on Brazilian TV. This, despite Brazil having imported more African slaves than any other country (over four million) and was the last state in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery.] Is racism just a black and white issue? Ironically, Michael Jackson asked in his song, does it matter if you are black or white?  {He did not ask it but said it}

I’m talking to the man in the mirror … heee hee, another MJ reference. I will admit that most of my ex-girlfriends were light-skinned. Even my Indian girlfriend was a yellow bone. She was scared of introducing me to her parents because as educated and liberal as they were, she was certain that her mom would not want to discolor her Gujarati caste with my shade. Hey, my mom used to buy skin-lighteners too in the eighties (trying to remove amaChubaba). So, I was not about to judge my future Guji mother-in-law. If most of my ex-relationships were with light- skinned women … wait … am I a racist? Can I be racist against my own kind? Am I like the black marketer who worked on the Dove campaign? My head is spinning.  Is dating mainly light- skinned women an individual preference or is it a well-cultivated media and cultural phenomenon that has brain-washed me to believe that white is right? Whooa! What kind of F@$&ry is this (… coming out of my cellphone keyboard?!) We’ve all heard the Venda jokes, or even jokes about black African people who are so dark they are navy blue. Sheeeeeet … I have laughed at those jokes (shocked emoji).

It turns out that the investigation into the black box (which is actually orange), is more complicated than I originally thought. Racism is complex and therefore prejudice along colour lines alone does not a racist maketh. Colorism does exist and is worse if it is subversive and self-multiplying like a virus. It feeds on itself and grows exponentially as demonstrated by the market for skin-lighteners. Like a virus, you can aid its growth by giving it an even more fertile environment for it to grow. Marketers will grow a fertile market. Colorism fosters discrimination regardless of source and whether you ignore it and turn the other way or laugh at the jokes, you are complicit

With regards to the Dove advert my conclusion would have to be as follows; there is legitimate reason why this advert can be seen as racist and or is racist. Colorism becomes racism when two races are juxtaposed (regardless of which races). Black and brown people may just want to be a lighter version of themselves (Colorism), this does not mean they want to be another race (Racism). This advert opened itself up for racism regardless of what my view or its intent was. When white people use tanning lotions it does not mean they want to be black, it just means they want to be darker versions of themselves, and they too spend billions in trying to get darker.

I have just seen the full Dove advert, and context is everything. My conclusion above is accurate if it is only based on the snapshot. But after viewing the full ad, I’m sure you will have a different perspective.

Key take outs;

Beauty may be skin deep, but the skin is the body’s largest organ.

Skin colour is a small part of racism as per the definition but it is a big part of one’s identity.

Race or race based incidents will continue to rise if we don’t look within for the cause.

Business decisions are never in isolation of the societal landscape, as entrepreneurs trying to change the world, we should always be cognizant of this.

Never judge a book by its cover.

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