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Race in Advertising: An Uncomfortable Truth


Skincare company Dove has recently faced intense backlash after posting a social media ad which appeared to depict a black woman using Dove lotion to turn into a white woman [1]. Through its marketing campaigns, Dove has aligned itself with ‘real beauty’, denouncing airbrushing, embracing models with a variety of body types and focusing its message on building confidence among women. These efforts towards breaking down standards of beauty have also emphasised diversity – but their latest ad scandal demonstrates that context is just as important as representation when it comes to matters of race in advertising. How can a marketing agency approach diversity and race in its campaigns in a way that is both inclusive and thoughtful?

Lack of representation

It’s no secret that advertising has a significant impact on our culture. The work of a single branding agency in London can deeply influence the greater public’s understanding of hot-button social issues like race. With great power comes great responsibility, and the marketing industry has a duty to depict race and diversity responsibly and thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, some companies see the sensitive issue of race as a topic to be avoided altogether – and all too often, ‘looking beyond’ race simply means ignoring it and defaulting to a white standard. A study of the top 20 advertising spenders in England and Wales in 2015 found that black people, mixed race people and Asian people appear in just 5.65%, 3.86% and 2.71% of adverts, respectively [2].

For companies adhering to advertising’s whitewashed history out of fear for making a misstep, Dove’s racist ad scandal represents all the things that could go wrong in a campaign that acknowledges race by including people from diverse backgrounds. But rather than fearing situations like Dove’s media nightmare, companies must approach race with a profound awareness of current events and public perception.

Forethought across platforms

In the case of Dove’s social media slip-up, the ad in question was apparently part of a longer video campaign with other footage and images that better demonstrated the brand’s intention of promising quality products for all women. Of course, this is not what they published on their Facebook page, and it’s not the message that was received by the consumer. Such instances show how important it is for a social media agency to dedicate attention to detail in their content across every platform.

Dove’s mistake sheds light on how a slight shift in context can add a whole new layer of meaning to an ad. Today’s adverts are often super-quick video spots, GIFs or screenshots, and it’s up to the marketer to foresee how a consumer could interpret these splices of content.

For marketers and consumers alike, race in advertising raises uncomfortable questions and brings attention to how far our culture still has to go in terms of equality and representation. As Dove’s cringe-worthy campaign has proven, marketers’ intentions do not foretell an ad’s public perception, but that does not give us an excuse to ignore race in advertising. Careful consideration of an ad’s implications and context can prevent it from communicating offensive and hurtful narratives while allowing for a full spectrum of diversity.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/08/dove-apologises-for-ad-showing-black-woman-turning-into-white-one

[2] https://www.marketingweek.com/2016/12/06/lloyds-diversity-report/

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SPOTLIGHT

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Plus 1 Communications

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