Dove: It shouldn’t have happened

by Monalisa Zwambila, CEO and founder of Riverbed

Who first raised the outcry when Dove’s by now notorious campaign, featuring a black woman who removes her t-shirt to reveal a more ‘clean’ white woman, broke?

In case you’re wondering, it was a makeup artist called Naomi Blake who, yes, is black. Of course, Naomi turned out to be just one of millions of consumers around the world who took umbrage with the ad’s ill-considered connotations, which makes me think: Why didn’t the black creatives involved in the campaign speak up before it broke? Did they somehow miss what everyone else around the world picked up on? Or is it because they felt their views either wouldn’t be welcome, or respected? More sinister still, could it be that there simply weren’t any black creatives working on this brief?

To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case. In the United States, blacks and other minorities make up around 40% of the population, but you wouldn’t know this by scanning the offices of the country’s ad agencies. And it shows: a representative team would have been able to develop an ad more inline with the population’s thinking.

Based on the racial composition of the US, it’s somewhat understandable that the minority might not be well represented, considered or prominent in these types of communications. However, in South Africa, where the majority are black, it’s befuddling to me that this scenario consistently plays out.

Brands are paying the price. We recently had our own Dove-style outrage when Outsurance failed to depict black families in its Father’s Day promotion. At the time, I spoke out about the fact that brands wouldn’t be making racially insensitive ads if the teams behind those ads were representative. I believe this more strongly than ever: South Africa’s consumer base has transformed. The black middle class is the most sought after target, and almost every brand is trying to hone in on this lucrative segment. Why, then, are their agencies not recruiting accordingly? And why aren’t CMOs and/or brand managers more insistent on changing the landscape?

There’s no ambiguity here. We’ve seen time and again what happens when the people targeted by brands aren’t included in the communications process. Corporates have to see that they can only benefit from more diverse suppliers; they have to see that worn out excuses about lack of capabilities and scale do not hold water. They need to call for more majority hiring within their agencies. More importantly, they need to view working with black-owned agencies as a chance to make a meaningful difference to the South African landscape, and not see it as a BEE compliance imperative that must be adhered to.

Many lessons have been realised through Dove’s PR debacle. It’s black and white for observers and commentators alike. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we could direct this emotional energy locally to catalyse the shift from white to black, and finally make change happen?

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