“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Those words, attributed to Oscar Wilde, are the likely forerunner to the less easy to pinpoint phrase, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” That sentence is often attributed to P.T. Barnum, the brilliant American showman, but it seems unlikely he actually said it.
The sentiment of both phrases came to mind on the weekend when I read a Washington Post story about a new advertising campaign for Dove soap. In ensuing reports about it, a series of photos begins with a smiling dark-skinned female wearing a brown blouse that matches her skin colour. The second shows her with her arms crossed, about to remove her blouse. The third photo shows that blouse being pulled over a head, revealing a white neck and off-white blouse beneath. The final shot in the quartet of images depicts a smiling Caucasian redhead, arms above her head with brown blouse still in hand. Each of the photos includes a bottle of Dove body wash in the lower right corner. The photos are screen captures from a video.
The Post report said that “The Dove brand sheepishly admitted that it had ‘missed the mark’ with a not-so-vaguely racist advertisement that made it the latest target of consumer outrage.”
One is only left to wonder exactly how this ad “missed the mark” given that there appears to be no other possible message (at least that I can fathom) other than that Dove soap can alter one’s skin colour. It seems astonishing that anyone in the company or ad agency that produced the campaign could have been so overtly blind to the message nearly everyone seems to be taking away from the images.
“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 said Monday in a statement to Reuters, according to the Post.
To be fair, apparently the complete version of the ad, which was removed from the Internet shortly after the spit hit the fan, finished with the redheaded woman removing her off-white shirt to reveal another dark-skinned woman.
Not surprisingly, social media users removed that final image, I assume to prove their point that the ad was racist.
No editing should have been necessary, though. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge of old advertising campaigns would be aware there were once soaps that promised to lighten dark skin. Cook’s “Lightning” Soap was probably the most famous.
Not that Dove is the only recent example of a company where stupidity reigns. Not so long ago Nivea, which is based in Germany, created a deodorant ad that said, “White is Purity.” Hmmm, isn’t that pretty much what Hitler was trying to tell us all these many years ago?
I do get royally tired of the microscope that social media users put on every word or image used today. They often play fast and loose with the truth in order to make people not to their liking look bad. And yes, I’ll admit that the number one target is Donald Trump. Not that he needs anyone’s help to make him look bad.)
And there are legitimate miscalculations in the advertising world wherein a campaign goes sideways, or backfires altogether. Think of the new Coca Cola formula introduced in 1985, which put one of the United States’s iconic brands up for public ridicule when consumers decided they liked the old recipe better. Efforts to sway public opinion continued in one or another for nearly two decades until New Coke was discontinued in 2002.
Ford had its own “New Coke” experience 30 years earlier, when it introduced the Edsel as “the car of the future”. The problem was not that it was a lousy car. The problem was that the consuming public found it ugly and expensive, and unable to meet up to Ford’s hype.
Coca Cola, and Ford before it, survived their gaffs, in large part because they were too big to fail. The Edsel SNAFU cost a quarter of a billion dollars, but neither the Ford Motor Company nor its brand died.
Nivea’s paean to the white supremacist movement didn’t break the bank, and Dove’s utter thoughtlessness won’t either.
Global corporations seem able to weather storms, even incredibly divisive ones. It’s a luxury that can extend to individuals, as proven by the careers of the late Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto, and The Donald, himself, even before he ascended to the throne that he believes to be the US presidency. On the other hand, Colin Kaepernic, the one-time star quarterback of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, who started the protests by athletes to shine a light on police brutality against non-white citizens, is learning the hard way that the tolerance extended to Ford and Trump is not available to people of other races. At least not on this continent.