It’s Time to End Racist Soap Adverts Forever

Personal care brand Dove hit the headlines last month for the wrong reasons.

Dove manufacturer Unilever was accused of running a racist marketing campaign by social media users. They were reacting angrily to a Facebook ad that appeared to show a black woman turn white after using Dove body wash.

Yes, you read that correctly. And yes, it is 2017. Numerous people felt the ad clearly implied that Dove could somehow wash away blackness to lead to whiteness. Unsurprisingly Dove was forced to withdraw the advert quickly and apologise.

CNBC News reported that Dove had admitted it “missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully.” That’s one top entry for understatement of the year. Because when it comes to soap ads, there’s some notable horrible history. As Twitter user @araoameny said, to some the ad “looks like a vintage racist soap ad”.

Racist soap adverts have been around for hundreds of years

Thomas J Barratt is often referred to as ‘the father of modern advertising’ for his revolutionary advertising campaigns for Pears’ soap.  But unfortunately his ads included horrendous racist stereotypes that were existed throughout the British Empire for hundreds of years to sustain discrimination against black people.  For example, a Pears’ soap ad that appeared in McClure’s Magazine in in 1899 stated:

“The first step towards lightening THE WHITE MAN’S BURDEN is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. PEARS’ SOAP is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.”

It’s pretty clear what the terms ‘…THE WHITE MAN’S BURDEN…’ and ‘…the dark corners of the earth…’ represent: black and ethnic minorities and their cultures across the world. Although the actress Dove used explained she felt the image in their ad was being taken out of context from the rest of the campaign, it was racially insensitive and inappropriate. Historical context matters greatly!

Increasing the diversity of organisations is the key to change

Questions remain about how and why this Dove ad was ever produced. But the actions needed to make sure these racially insensitive ads aren’t ever produced again are clear.

Creative teams will always make mistakes unless the organisations they serve are truly diverse and inclusive. That requires a shift in mindset that sees all boards ask ‘what are we doing to address the lack of diversity in our organisation?’ Action to increase diversity in organisations must be supported from the top down.

For this to happen consistently, the diversity at the very top of organisations must change too. A recent study from Green Park shows that 58% of main boards in the FTSE100 currently have no ethnic minority presence. This illustrates the scale of the change required.

But increasing diversity has the added benefit that diverse organisations that attract and retain people from the widest pool of talent consistently perform better. To help achieve this all organisations need a clear, meaningful policy that addresses explicit and overt racism within their organisation, including unconscious bias in recruitment. They also need to work hard to attract people from diverse backgrounds into their workforces.

Global brands are turning to VERCIDA to attract diverse candidates 

Some organisations are already using the power of technology to drive change in this area. Global brands like American ExpressBarclays and GlakoSmithKline now use global diversity and inclusion recruitment website VERCIDA.com* to diversify their talent pools with a range of candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds.

VERCIDA offers employers a unique opportunity to showcase their roles, opportunities and organisational culture to a diverse audience that previously may not have considered them. For example, each company has a full profile on the VERCIDA site, which allows it to talk in detail about its culture and to show the results and success of the diversity journey it is on internally.

VERCIDA CEO Morgan Lobb said: “Diversity in the jobs market is extremely competitive and has gathered immense pace. Organisations face huge public criticism when their brand does not represent the diversity of society.

“Couple this with the lack of productivity and profitability associated with not having a diverse workforce, and it has become an urgent priority for many CEO’s.

Despite their best efforts employers still face woeful staff representation. We have built VERCIDA.com to solve this issue.”

Knowledge is power: training is crucial to make the right decisions 

We believe the final step of the journey to avoid more racially insensitive advertising and marketing is training for all directors, HR and communications professionals on diversity and inclusion, and inclusive communications.

After all, knowledge is power. The right knowledge will help you and your organisation avoid taking poor decisions and guide you to the right decisions in whatever you do.

*VERCIDA is a client of Big Voice Communications, where this blog was originally published.

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