An ad from Unilever's Dove that showed a black womanin a lighter colored shirt was supposed to spark sales for its body wash.
Instead, the spot set off a firestorm of criticism, with some consumers calling the ad racist and reminiscent of an older theme in soap ads, where a black person cleaned the "dirt" from their bodies, transforming into white people.
While the ad may have shocked consumers in the U.S., the clip's racially loaded imagery is far from ancient history, given a thriving multi-billion dollar global market for "skin lightening" products that often employ similar imagery and themes.
Take Unilever's (UL) Fair & Lovely cream, which was created in the 1970s when a scientist in its India operations discovered vitamin B3 could lighten skin color. The product's advertisements have often depicted women with darker skin tones losing out on the man they love or the job they seek -- until they lighten their skin with Fair & Lovely.
To be sure, Unilever's product isn't the only skin cream to be marketed this way. Consumers and activists are increasingly pushing back by organizing boycotts and raising questions about how the products are marketed.
Unilever's Fair & Lovely "commercials depict dark-skinned women transforming into light-skinned women with a direct result of success in romance and careers," wrote Sunil Bhatia, a professor at Connecticut College, in U.S. News & World Report earlier this year.
He added, "Preference of fair skin is a symptom of internalized racism and colorism – one of the tragic but enduring legacies of British imperialism."
Other regions are also witnessing backlashes to similar campaigns. Nivea pulled a "White Is Purity" slogan after some consumers complained it was racist. The ad, which was targeted to people in the Middle East, was also hijacked by white supremacists, who overlaid racist messages on top of the slogan. In another campaign, Unilever's Ponds ran an ad campaign in Pakistan touting "Dark out, white in." Unilever didn't immediately return a request for comment.
The woman who portrayed the black woman in the controversial Dove ad, Lola Ogunyemi, noted that she was aware how the beauty industry has long relied on lighter-skinned or white models to portray the ideal beauty.
"Historically, and in many countries still today, darker models are even used to demonstrate a product's skin-lightening qualities to help women reach this standard," Ogunyemi wrote in The Guardian. "This repressive narrative is one I have seen affect women from many different communities I've been a part of. And this is why, when Dove offered me the chance to be the face of a new body wash campaign, I jumped."
She added, "If I had even the slightest inclination that I would be portrayed as inferior, or as the 'before' in a before-and-after shot, I would have been the first to say an emphatic 'no.'"
Ogunyemi noted that the full 30-second TV commercial represented the campaign's message more accurately, which was supposed to celebrate diversity, noting that she believed the shorter clips were misinterpreted.
That may be, but consumers are reacting to a long history of ads that play on racist tropes and create insecurities and fear within women and men who don't conform to the industry's vision of what's beautiful. It's clear there's big business in these techniques: The global market for skin lighteners will top $31 billion by 2024, according to Global Industry Analysts.
Skin-lightening products that target men are gaining traction, while the fastest-growing market is the Asia-Pacific region, where sales are jumping more than 10 percent on a compound annual basis. Despite Dove's apology, the issues with problematic marketing is far from skin deep.
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