Advertising

Dove delivers apology after customers rage at Facebook ad showing black woman turning white

Emma Koehn /

Beauty products producer Dove has been forced to apologise and remove a Facebook campaign that showed a black model transforming into a white model after using the brand’s products.

American makeup artist Naomi Blake, known as Nay the Mua, shared the campaign with her 60,000 strong Facebook audience over the weekend, asking, “ok, so what am I looking at?”.


The campaign showed cells of a number of women using a Dove skin product, with the first cells showing a black woman taking off her t-shirt to transform into a red-headed white woman.

In feedback delivered to the brand, Nay the Mua suggested to Dove that the company “grab a black person at your company and ask them their honest opinion of this ad”.


Dove responded saying the intention was to show its Dove Body Wash product delivered benefits to “every type of skin”.

However, after receiving a rush of complaints from other customers in the UK and US via Twitter, the brand apologised for the post, saying it had been deleted.

Some customers reflected on Twitter that Dove had previously alluded to skin tones in the past in an inappropriate way, including a campaign that showed women in a line from dark skin to light, with the most pale model representing the “after” results of using the product.

This is not the first time this year that a beauty brand has been hit with criticism for branding that directly references skin colour. In April, beauty giant Nivea was forced to apologise after its Middle Eastern office created a deodorant promotion that featured the slogan “white is purity”. 

Director of Marketing Angels Michelle Gamble says it might be hard to believe these messages get through to final approval. However these Facebook campaigns indicate there might not be the levels of oversight for social media advertising that are traditionally used in outdoor or television campaigns for beauty products.

I think with Facebook, sometimes people don’t go through the approval process of something they would do with TV ads. It sounds like this one, with Dove, hasn’t been tested to the level that it should have been.” 

Dove courts outrage despite previous good work

Gamble says this effort from Dove is surprising given it has previously established a reputation for itself for creating promotions that celebrate all body types in its advertising.

“Dove has led the charge in sending those positive messages,” she says.

“They have been fantastic in leading the change on positive body image, and people see them as a brand that is very supportive of women, but they’ve probably flown too close to the sun on this one.”

The brand already had case studies like the Nivea outrage to remind it that consumers do not respond well to references to skin colour in advertisements in this way. Gamble says the situation shows many big consumer goods companies don’t take the time to examine why their competitors might have fallen into trouble with branding.

“Dove and Nivea would be direct competitors, but the thing is that brands operate very much in silos in that fast moving consumer goods space. There aren’t good cross-brand learnings there.”

Gender intelligence consultant Bec Brideson says these faux pas continue to happen because the traditional business lens still has blind spots across gender, culture and disability, just to name a few areas.

“In their race to manufacture fast content for their socials, they have prioritised quantity, not quality content and have shirked due-diligence and smart-process lens checks around culture and gender,” Brideson says.

“For Unilever, this is a glitch in what is usually a healthy and broad church that has helped to change the cultural norms around women and their emotional relationship with their bodies and beauty.”

Brideson says Dove and Unilver need to “shape up fast” to ensure comprehensive checks are done on how their campaigns may be interpreted.

For businesses overall, she says it must be accepted that there will be fallout if consumers feel that brand’s marketing displays prejudice, and this will impact sales.

“Women and especially women of colour vote with their wallets, and, if current events aren’t already signifying, they will not tolerate such appalling prejudice and inequity.”

SmartCompany contacted the head office of Dove owner Unilever but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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