What’s the story?
The cosmetics firm Dove has come under fire after releasing an advert which appeared to show a black woman becoming white after using the company’s soap.
You might imagine that cosmetics giant Dove might have become synonymous with positive body image, after its long-running ‘campaign for real beauty’ which challenges advertising norms around female models. Increasingly though, the firm has been dogged by accusations of racism, after a series of embarrassing advertising and branding errors.
In 2011, an advert for Dove shower lotion appeared to show a black woman in a ‘before’ pose, and a white woman as a representation of ‘after’. If that was unfortunate, then the decision a year later to release a nourishing lotion for ‘normal to dark skin’ was seriously foolish. Incredibly, the line appeared again on a similar product in 2015.
All of this means that when Dove again created an ill-judged advertising campaign in October 2017, the watching world was feeling less than forgiving. The new advert shows a black woman taking off her shirt after apparently using a Dove product, at which point she is revealed to have turned into a white woman. A third transition then happens, as this second character transforms into an Asian woman. Commentators also noted that each of the three women wore a shirt which was intended to match their skin tone.
The advert sparked global outrage across social media as soon as it was released. Despite an almost-immediate apology from the brand, criticism rained in from all sides. South African culture minister Nathi Mthethwa called it “racist conduct on a structural level”, while Christian rapper Lecrae said that “Dove will never see them [people of colour] again.”
Dove’s apology was itself criticised for not going far enough. In a tweet, the company said: “an image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.” For many, an out-and-out admission of institutionalised, racist attitudes would have been more appropriate.
What have others been saying?
Biba Kang wrote in The Independent that Dove’s ‘sorry you were offended’ apology did not go far enough.
News and comment website The Daily Beast pointed out that Dove’s advert was part of a long line of allegedly-racist soap advertising.
The Washington Post provided a rundown of reactions to the ad, including those on social media.
#1 – SUBTLE RACISM
Galatians 3: 26-28 is perhaps the clearest and most profound passage in Scripture to directly challenge prejudice. Paul writes: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” This passage doesn’t just avoid drawing lines between races and genders, but positively strikes a line through those divides. We can subtly imbibe prejudice through our upbringing, culture and experience, but this must be checked and challenged. Institutionalised racism is perhaps the hardest to break, and the church must ensure that it is not one of the institutions which is unable to see this inherent flaw within itself.
#2 – BLIND SPOTS
The Dove story is a challenge to be aware of our ‘blind spots’ – the areas where our privileges or prejudices render us unable to see injustice for what it is (the most sympathetic reading of the Dove story is that this is what happened). Jesus encourages us to be aware of our blind spots when we’re making judgements; in Matthew 7 he warns against hypocrisy with some fairly strong words: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Dove, with their ‘real beauty’ campaign, have famously taken aim at cosmetics firms and their choice of models and image manipulation. Yet at the same time, they’ve arguably failed to acknowledge their own blind spots around the use of imagery in advertising.
Points for prayer
Pray for racial tensions around the world at the moment, including those in the US and across Europe.
Pray for those in your community who are subject to racist attitudes and prejudice, that they would experience justice, inclusion and an end to this experience.
Pray for ourselves, that we might spot subtle or overt racist attitudes within us, and seek God’s help in fighting and changing them.
Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy Chief Executive. A former editor of Youthwork magazine and the founding Editor of sister-title Childrenswork, Martin is a popular speaker and the author of various books including ‘Youth Work From Scratch’. He lives in Reigate, Surrey with his wife Jo and their four children.