The Dove Scandal: It's Time to Fix Our Own Glass Houses
Lola Ogunyemi, the model that features in the “whitewashing” Dove ad has been quoted in several publications saying that the intention of the ad was not to portray black women as inferior to their white counterparts, and that the visuals have been misinterpreted.
Lola’s viewpoint makes total logical sense but doesn’t quite fit the more dramatic outrage that fuels this story, summarised by her claim "If you Google 'racist ad' right now, a picture of my face is the first result".
So naturally I Googled ‘racist ad’ and she’s right, there she is, headlining the first page of about 34,300,000 results.
However, doing this made me think that I could probably find a more offensive, more racist ad without trying too hard. (I didn’t do that though. I’m not recommending it either.) So why the outrage? The answer is that a little bit of Schadenfreude is more fun as a social pastime. Lola says: "I can see how the snapshots that are circulating the web have been misinterpreted, considering the fact that Dove has faced a backlash in the past for the exact same issue.”
With this statement, she pinpoints the possibility that Dove’s track-record might be part of the reason people have been so swift to vent their anger. This isn’t their first offence – they have misfired with accidentally racist and body-shaming ads in the past (the “before and after” imagery and the ‘body-shaped’ bottles promotion respectively). The ‘David’ of public opinion versus the ‘Goliath’ of a big brand is a compelling narrative.
This being said, if we think logically about the accusations, I am sure we can all agree it would have been beyond crazy for Dove to have made racist ads deliberately - unless they had an insane plan to actively sell less products, shed customers and wipe points off their share price. I think it’s fair to give them the benefit of the doubt (again) and say they didn’t mean it.
However, as all bedroom philosophers know, Derrida's critique of the relationship between text and meaning suggests that once the ad was out there, it was open for deconstruction.
And it has been deconstructed, and interpreted as racist - a fairly conceivable reading, however far that was from the original intention.
How about this - I’m going to deconstruct the deconstruction.
My take is: The fact that the ‘racist’ interpretation running counter to the intention of the content had not been flagged before it went out could suggest there were not enough diverse voices in front of the creative at sign off.
So far, so meta.
But research tells us that the percentage of employees from a non-white background in IPA member creative and media agencies in the UK is highest at the junior level.
And at junior level, there isn’t a great deal of influence.
Looking at the stats more closely, larger creative agencies have a higher percentage of BAME employees (black, Asian and minority ethnic) at the most junior level (14.3%) than smaller agencies (7.8%) with a similar trend within media agencies (19.8% in smaller agencies and 17.2% in large ones).
And perhaps most disturbingly, in both large and small agencies the numbers decrease as you climb the pay grades - with no BAME individuals at the top level at all in small media agencies.
So, with the next advertising furore, maybe we need to contain our outrage and try to look at the picture behind the picture - and find out what these controversies tells us about ourselves and our industry. The fact that these stats are easily available is a step in the right direction. If we can fix our own glass houses we’ll find that diversity is not just a social and ethical responsibility, but great for business for brand and agency alike.