Nivea apologises amid massive backlash over “White is Purity” deodorant ad on Facebook

Emma Koehn /

Global cosmetics giant Nivea has apologised after a deodorant advertisement that used the slogan “White is Purity” attracted fierce criticism, with communications experts saying the blunder is a reminder to SMEs that digital advertising is borderless, and mistakes can have big consequences.

The ad, which originated from the brand’s Middle East Facebook page, featured a woman wearing a white robe with her back to the camera, with the slogan “White is Purity” stamped across the image.

Nivea immediately apologised and removed the image following a groundswell of consumer backlash, with the brand’s owner, German cosmetics producer Beiersdorf, saying in a statement it was “deeply sorry” for the image.

“There have been concerns risen about ethnic discrimination due to a post about NIVEA Deodorant Invisible for Black & White on our NIVEA Middle East Facebook page,” the company said, reports the BBC.

“Diversity and equal opportunity are crucial values of NIVEA,” the company said.

However, by this point the ad had already adopted by both satirists and members of the ALT-Right and white supremacists on social media, with hundreds of customers from across the globe complaining from on Facebook and Twitter.

Nivea Australia told SmartCompany the global brand had made its position on the ad known, and there was nothing more to add on the case.

Read more: Luggage retailer Crumpler cops backlash after advertising a naked woman in a suitcase 

Brands must “understand the totality of their audience”

This is not the first time customers have been quick to condemn businesses for use of the word “White” in a context they found insensitive. Last December a Terry White Chemist copped heat for a display of Golliwogs in store, beneath a sign promoting a “White Christmas”.

Crisis communications expert Nicole Matejic says that while uproar over the Nivea ad is not surprising, the situation shows that even when a brand comes up with an angle they think will work for their customer base, the nature of social media is that all ads can be seen by a much wider audience.

“You need have a good understanding of the audience in the geographical location you are [advertising to], but Nivea is a global brand, and whatever they do, they need to look at it from a global organisational point of view, regardless of what fits with one culture,” she says.

Matejic says it’s paramount that brands consider their complete audience and any possible ways an advertisement could be interpreted, particularly online.

“They need to understand the totality of their audience,” she says.

Director of InsideOut PR Nicole Reaney says the lesson here for businesses is that all communications need to go beyond the actual features of a product, and be considered as a message overall.

“It’s easy to focus on consumer research and provide a campaign that addresses concerns through your product features, however it’s not just consumers that will view the ad,” she says.

When it comes to how to prevent this kind of blunder from happening, there’s one key solution: make sure as many people as possible get to see advertising and marketing material before it is released to the world. Reaney says.

“As part of a stringent and regulated marketing process, teams should get the approvals and perspectives from a number of ‘hats’ within an organisation, including legal, technical and public relations and consider every stakeholder that would consume the campaign,” she says.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.