The Black model who appeared in a Dove ad that garnered negative attention for its racist message claims that critics may have jumped the gun before knowing the full commercial’s intended message.
“I am not a victim,” said Lola Ogunyemi in an op-ed for The Guardian.
However, the commercial clip, which Dove took down after mounting criticism last weekend, still raises questions about who is reviewing the images that companies post to social media — and, more importantly, what the implications of those images are.
The company said it “missed the mark” with an ad that shows a Black woman who turns herself white with Dove soap.
Ogunyemi is a Black woman living in London. She said in her article she “jumped” at the opportunity to be featured in a Dove campaign.
“I had no idea I would become the unwitting poster child for racist advertising,” she wrote.
The advertisement in question was teased on Dove’s Facebook page. The brief clip, part of a 30-second commercial, shows Ogunyemi removing a brown t-shirt. The next clip appears to show Ogunyemi turning into a white woman in a white t-shirt. Lastly, the white woman removes her shirt, revealing a third woman underneath. (In her article, Ogunyemi identifies the third woman as Asian.)
When the Facebook teaser of the ad came out, Ogunyemi recalled, “My friends and family loved it. People congratulated me for being the first to appear, for looking fabulous, and for representing Black Girl Magic. I was proud.”
She described the full length commercial:
“There were seven of us in the full version, different races and ages, each of us answering the same question: ‘If your skin were a wash label, what would it say?’
“Again, I was the first model to appear in the ad, describing my skin as ‘20% dry, 80% glowing’, and appearing again at the end. I loved it, and everyone around me seemed to as well.”
Ogunyemi says the shortened clips were understandably “misinterpreted,” especially considering that Dove has ran into accusations of racist advertising before.
“There is a lack of trust here, and I feel the public was justified in their initial outrage,” Ogunyemi wrote.
Dove has tried to brand itself as a champion of diversity, notably with its “Dove Real Beauty Pledge.” However, the mishap over the weekend was not the company’s first brush with advertisements critics deemed racist.
A 2011 ad showed a “before” and “after” to depict “visibly more beautiful skin.” Three women are standing in a row in front of two backdrops. The “before” represents dry skin, and the “after” symbolizes smooth skin. The woman standing first in the row — representing the less “beautiful” before image — is Black. The third woman in the row is white. Huffington Post at the time surmised that the woman in the middle was “possibly Latina.”
However, Ogunyemi continued, “Having said that, I can also see that a lot has been left out. The narrative has been written without giving consumers context on which to base an informed opinion.”
While perhaps the full advertisement, had it been aired on its own from the start, would have generated a different response, the implications behind the clip that went viral represent a history of the idea that blackness is dirty and evil while whiteness is pure and desirable. This notion continues to live in today’s society.
Earlier this year Nivea, a Germany-based company specializing in skin care, ran an ad campaign targeting its Middle Eastern consumers with the slogan, “White Is Purity.” The ad was for the company’s “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant.
Social media was abuzz with criticism for Nivea — but not all the comments were negative. The ad drew attention from white supremacists and people who appeared to support the general “White Is Purity” message.
A screengrab captured by The Daily Mail shows one Facebook group posted to Nivea’s page, “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.”
Several media outlets quoted a tweet that said, “Nivea has chosen our side and the most liked comments are glorious.” The tweet appears to have since been deleted.
The Washington Post reported at the time:
“One [comment] showed Pepe the Frog, a meme that in recent years was co-opted by white supremacists and has been declared a hate symbol.
“Another showed a picture of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler edited to depict him with glowing orbs of light for eyes.
“A handful of threads on the anonymous online forum 4chan praised the Nivea ad slogan’s apparent, if unintended, link to white supremacy and encouraged people to ‘LIKE ALL COMMENTS, BUY THEIR PRODUCTS.’”
Equating light skin with beauty is not only a worldwide concept; it is also a significant money generator. A June report from Global Insight Analysts estimated that the global market for skin lightening products will hit $31.2 billion (in U.S. dollars) by 2024.
And the side effects are more than skin deep. An article published by Quartz last summer observes:
“While skin-lightening has some negative physical side effects—cancer aside, bleaching creams can cause rashes, itchy and flaky skin, and permanent scarring—the hydroquinone backlash has deeper roots. Skin-lightening is seen as a direct byproduct of colorism, a form of discrimination that deems lighter skin ‘better’ than darker skin. Historically, colorism has led to disparities in everything from social treatment to employment, and has even been documented as a factor in US prison sentencing.”
Sunil Bhatia, a professor at Connecticut College, penned a piece for U.S. News following the Nivea ad. Bhatia explores the historical roots of idolizing fair skin, noting that this belief remains ingrained in today’s society.
“British colonialism’s portrayal of Indians, over two centuries, as dark savages and primitive natives as incapable of self-governing has continued to linger in the psychological and social identity of post-colonial India. Preference of fair skin is a symptom of internalized racism and colorism – one of the tragic but enduring legacies of British imperialism,” he wrote.
While social media can be a good catalyst to draw attention to an issue, Bhatia called for stronger action:
“Protesting Nivea’s ‘White is Purity’ campaign on social media succeeded in removing the ad, but we need more. A sustained global protest movement that erases the societal structures creating skin color discrimination, racial supremacy, unattainable body images and exploitative media corporations is the right prescription.”