Racial Controversy in Advertising and How To Avoid The Need For Apologies

 

I was waiting for another “advertisement campaign gone wrong” news story to happen to contrast the way in which the messages in traditional magazine style graphic ads differ with what can be done with content marketing and sure enough Dove does me the favor of running an ad that many are calling racist and is now facing a boycott of their product.

In this article I’m not going to judge the intentions of the people involved in this Facebook-based advertising campaign, but I will defend their intentions by stating I believe the screen grabs below that spread like wildfire across Twitter misconstrue the nature of the ad – which isn’t nearly as direct in implications as this.

Instead, I’m going to show why it is that people claim it is racist; touch upon some of the ways in which a marketing messaging can be engaging and controversial but not offensive; and finally present a brief content marketing proposal that Dove could have instead done which would provide more value for their current and would be customers.

Racism in American Skin Care Marketing

   

Controversial marketing can be very effective, but if not done properly it can also lead to undesired press. Because of this it is important to always keep in mind the perspectives of the people being depicted or implicated in advertising.

One need not agree completely with all the views of prominent African American cultural commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates as to the power of whiteness to recognize that in the United States whiteness has been lauded as an definitive quality for culturally dominant standards of beauty and truth; legitimate political power and authority; etc. Additionally, one need not agree completely with Malcolm X to recognize that the media has a huge impact in how communities perceive themselves.

In this sense we can come to understand that the brouhaha is less about the manifest content – a skin cream that whitens – but the latent content, or social context, in which it is promoted.

To put it another way the issue at stake, pardon the pun, is not black and white but is specifically about what many people see as a culture that continuing to reinforce a social and economic order that denigrates and exploits black people. Because of this, these these types of advertisements are seen as ideologically supporting such a structure and why Proctor & Gamble’s ad is so celebrated for being the opposite.

Cultural Sensitivity in Polarized Times and What Stays With Consumers

   

Skin whitening creams aren’t the only type of product and services whose communications run the risk of being labelled racist and alienating customers.

Surf pulled a number of ads like the one above, which is especially ironic given criticism over roles and awards given to black actors in Hollywood films. In the wake of controversy over the defending hate groups prior to demonstrations in Charlotesville and their subsequent Twitter post shown above, the ACLU has changed their position on defending all groups right to free speech and apologized for their posting. State Farm’s Twitter account briefly became

What these and the Dove ads miss is cultural sensitivity that would allow them to see how how black people and their allies could feel that such marketing messaging contributes to a culture that denigrates blackness.

While not speaking on race but sexual preference, Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A’s reflection on the comments he’d made regarding gay marriage summaries provides a good insight in what companies should consider when approaching their messaging:

“Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with. And it’s probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to.”

If a consumer feels that a company is attacking them in their advertisement, intentional or not, it puts th consumer relationships at risk.

Great Content Marketing That Deals With Controversial Content

The problem with addressing or depicting controversy in advertisements is not necessarily that it gets attention, but what further message is then transmitted from it. Though many people purchase products such as bleaching creams or Surf detergent in order to get their skin or clothes whiter, the underlying message of “Darkness is undesirable” leads to wasted ad buys and time spent on handling criticisms. It’s for this reason that content marketing is particularly effective.

This is one of the reasons why Zillow and NerdWallet’s Content Marketing is doing such an amazing job. Not only are they both producing functional tools for people to used, but they are also coming out with reports like: Rising Rents, Stagnant Wages, And the Burden of Unstable Housing and Seeking Medical Debt Relief? Crowdfunding Rarely Pays Off the Bills.

Hiding Controversy in Plain Sight

   

Chances are as you read what my good examples of controversial choices for marketing content was you may have thought the following contentions:

  • These don’t deal with race.
  • These aren’t controversial.
  • I’m comparing apples and oranges.

Regarding the first point you are absolutely right. I will, however, provide an example of what good content marketing that deals with race looks like below so I hope you’ll overlook this. As for them not being controversial let me explain how they are.

Your friends, if they’re good friends, will certainly give sympathy for expressing anxiety and frustration over your income and how your daily struggles wouldn’t feel so burdensome if you just earned just a few percentage points in your salary and some level of support. Your employer, who holds the power in making such a determination, is less likely to be as welcoming to such expressions and less likely to offer support – though this is changing.

The future of health care in America is so highly contested by a variety of actors that have stakes in saving and losing money that protests and coordinated movements to sway legislators have erupted all over the country. Regardless of one’s view of what is to be done, information is power and this goes to show that private philanthropy is not doing nearly enough to prevent people from death or life-changing debt.

As for the third contention, that’s a partial truth as they are different in format but as they are at their root marketing messages such a distinction is spurious and only gives heft to the claim of many advertising professionals today that content marketing is king. Unlike the visual-only ads, these content marketing projects do not veil the conditions of American political economy but make unveiling it their purpose. The value-proposition of Zillow and NerdWallet’s content marketing is educational rather than mere single grahpic attention grab whose only message is: “This lotion will whiten your skin”.

What Could Dove Have Done to Raise Brand Awareness Instead of Publishing An Ad the Replicates Racist Tropes?

Like many other people,  I Feaking Love Science. Like many publishers, I also love survey based projects. Not wanting to go into too much details, it was with this in mind that I thought of some alternatives that Dove could have developed instead of the racially insensitive ads.

Were Dove to take a content marketing approach instead of the traditional single graphic ad for their campaign they would have had their marketing team produce content that educates about skin and race via an aesthetically engaging depiction and explanation of the science of skin color.

Were Dove to take a content marketing approach they could have presented the findings of a survey asking about perceptions of whiteness that combined analysis of their results with that of previous studies in an engaging manner. There a lot of them on race in relation to aspects of American society and such a study that examines original research (Legal, psychological, etc.) along with the number produced, their findings and analysis of other qualities over time would contribute to the national conversation instead of being seen as just more evidence for one position or another.

Controversial Content, But Without The Baggage

One of the reasons content marketing is such an amazing field is that the value it creates is not as ephemeral, being more than a mere image, but also as it can be continuously updated, and parts of it can be repurposed. Like solely visual advertisements it seeks to gain a consumer’s attention, but because of the format it is able to do so without the baggage and and in a more organic manner.

If you want to assure that your company’s time is not wasted by apologizing for an insensitive advertisement and are interested in learning more how controversial content can help your marketing, reach out to me, Ariel Sheen, and ask about how I can help build up on-site material or how I can build you a content marketing campaign.

Not only do I have a track record of successful content marketing campaigns, but my extensive studies in America’s history and culture means you won’t end up with lots of press about how you inadvertently promoted racially insensitivity.

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