Dove’s problem is more than skin deep

Posted by Sara Hawthorn

The brand has apologised but this isn’t Dove’s first or even second offence, so are we finally ready to ask why a brand as big and advocating of natural beauty as Dove is repeatedly failing to get it right?

The stand out question during the fallout is how such an insensitive advert made it through the creative process. In this particular case it’s currently unclear who was behind the ad; Ogilvy and Mather have been responsible for many of the ‘natural beauty’ campaigns but Unilever’s in house studio also handles a range of campaign projects for Dove.

In truth, the reason the campaign was given the stamp of approval may not be that difficult to comprehend. A quick Google and visit to the Ogilvy and Mather ‘Our People’ page reveals a 100% white picture. As far as U Studios (the in-house Unilever team) is concerned, I struggled to find anything which may indicate how diverse their team is, but I’d be willing to bet it’s as diverse as a Hollywood blockbuster production meeting.

Better decisions through diversity

Dove’s repeated blunders are an indication of a systematic issue which sits right at the heart of the creative industry; a stark lack of diversity. Would their off-target campaigns have been approved had a representative mix of voices been heard at the table. Had women of colour, as Dove terms them, been involved in the creative process of the latest ad it’s highly likely that the offence may have been pointed out an earlier stage and binned or re-sculpted into something actually inclusive and celebratory.

The irony here is that Dove, for all its apparent commitment to accurate representation, doesn’t seem able to take its own advice and develop marketing teams that mirror the mix of different people so often promoted in their adverts. Instead of admitting that there may be a serious diversity issue in its ranks, Dove is opting for the path of continual forgiveness.

This is a not only a risky strategy in terms of reputation, but it’s doing a massive disservice to the creative sector. We’re already behind across most diversity-related areas like BAME, disability and social background, and a brand as big as Dove, with a parent as powerful as Unilever, could very easily choose to acknowledge and embrace the benefits of diverse teams.

A fairer corporate world

Its seeming unwillingness to do so presents bigger questions, according to women’s rights advocate, Anj Handa of Inspiring Women Changemakers:

“I am concerned that large brands such Dove and L’Oreal continue to perpetuate the message that light skin is not only more attractive, but is ‘normal’ – and that any shade above olive is therefore ‘abnormal.’

Despite being brought up in the UK, many ethnic minority women still pursue the quest for a fairer complexion. They not only struggle to find cosmetics that match their skin tones, but are told by society and the media that light skin is more desirable. As a result, they often turn to skin lighteners, and that’s lucrative for companies such as Unilever.

In fact, it’s highly lucrative: the global market for skin lighteners will be worth $31.2 billion by 2024, according to a recent Global Industry Analysts report.

Growing up, I recall seeing many ads for skin-lightening products such as Fair and Lovely (a Unilever product). While Fair and Lovely is deemed to be safe, many lightening products contain hydroquinone, a chemical which is potentially carcinogenic in larger concentrations.

Yet women continue to use them, because the messaging around skin colour is more than skin deep. This is why, in 2014, I came up with the hashtag #huesbeautiful for a campaign led by Leeds-based charity, BHI (Black Health Initiative).

I want women everywhere to feel that they’re beautiful, whatever hue they are. As the Dove slogan ironically goes ‘Love the skin you’re in’.”

The story from Lola Ogunyemi’s (one of the models in the ad) perspective can be found here. Interestingly, her experience of the shoot is not aligned with the resulting backlash and Lola explains that the full 30 second advert had more context and that the overarching message of ‘all skin deserves gentleness’ was far clearer than conveyed in the still image. 

But you have to wonder if, regardless of how well intentioned and positive it may have been in the project room, on the shoot or during the editing process, there was any point at which the potential misinterpretation of the message was raised and talked about? Dove has to go forward from here by answering tough questions about the diversity of their teams; when even the models start calling them out for repeated offences they’re out of chances and have no excuses left. 


inFusion Comms diversity in PR

Sara Hawthorn is founder of InFusion Comms and outspoken promoter of diversity in PR.