This week the marketing office of Dove, a personal care brand of Unilever, found itself in hot water over an ad that many people have taken to be racially insensitive. Social media users called for a boycott of the brand’s products.
The offending ad showed a black woman appearing to turn white after using its body lotion. This online campaign was swiftly removed but had already hurtled through social media after a US makeup artist, Naomi Blake (Naythemua), posted her dismay on Facebook, calling the ad “tone deaf”.
Dove responded initially via Twitter.
The company then followed up with a longer statement: “As a part of a campaign for Dove body wash, a three-second video clip was posted to the US Facebook page … It did not represent the diversity of real beauty which is something Dove is passionate about and is core to our beliefs, and it should not have happened.”
One has to ask, were the boys destined for Dove marketing kicking on at the pub instead of going to their History of Advertising lecture, the one with the 1884 Pears’ soap ad powerpoint? Jokes aside, Dove’s troubling ad buys into a racist history of seeing white skin as clean, and black skin as something to be cleansed.
Dove has missed the mark before. In a 2011 ad, three progressively paler-skinned women stand in towels under two boards labelled “Before” and “After”, implying transitioning to lighter skin was the luminous beauty promise of Dove (Dove responded that all three women represented the “after” image).
Many of the indignant comments reference the longstanding trope of black babies and women scrubbed white. Australia has particular form on this front. Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay historian Frances Peters–Little (filmmaker and performing artist) has demanded an apology from Dove. She posted a soap advertisement for Nulla Nulla soap from 1901 on Facebook to show the long reach of racism through entrenched tropes still at work in the Dove ads.
Wiradjuri author Kathleen Jackson has also written about the Nulla Nulla ad and the kingplate, a badge of honour given by white settlers to Aboriginal people, labelled “DIRT”. She explains that whiteness was seen as purity, while blackness was seen as filth, something that colonialists were charged to expunge from the face of the Earth. Advertising suggested imperial soap had the power to eradicate indigeneity.
This coincided with policies that were expressly aimed at eliminating the “native”. In Australia the policy of assimilation was based on the entirely spurious scientific whimsy of “biological absorption”, that dark skin and indigenous features could be eliminated through “breeding out the colour”.
In New South Wales, “half-caste” girls were targeted for removal from their families and placed as domestic servants in white homes where it was assumed “lower-class” white men would marry them. These women were often vulnerable to sexual violence. Any resulting children, however begotten, would be fairer-skinned, due implicitly to the bleaching properties of white men’s s e m e n.
Aboriginal mothers were vilified as unhygienic and neglectful. In fact, they battled against often impossible privation to turn their children out immaculately in the hope police would have less cause to remove them.
Cleanliness and godliness, whiteness and maternal competency: these are the lacerations Dove liberally salted with its history-blind ad. It unwittingly strikes at the resistance and resilience of Aboriginal families who for generations fended off fragmentation, draconian administration and intrusive surveillance by state administrators. Its myopic implied characterisation of beauty as resulting from shedding blackness is mystifying.
In 2004, Dove kicked off a campaign for “Real Beauty”. It proclaims itself “an agent of change to educate and inspire girls on a wider definition of beauty and to make them feel more confident about themselves”. Dove’s online short films about beauty standards – including Daughters, Onslaught, Amy and Evolution – have been recognised with international advertising awards.
Yet Dove also sits in Unilever with Fair and Lovely, a skin whitening product and brand developed in India in 1975. This corporate cousin to Dove touts its bleaching agent as the No. 1 “fairness cream” and purports to work through activating “the Fair and Lovely vitamin system to give radiant even toned skin”. It is sold in over 40 countries.
Skin whitening products (there is also a Fair and Handsome for men, not associated with Unilever) are popular in Asia, where more than 60 companies compete in a market estimated at US$18 billion. They enforce social hierarchies around caste and ethnicity. Since the 1920s the racialised politics of skin lightening have spread around the globe as consumer capitalism reached into China, India and South Africa.
Dove responded to its controversial ad by saying that “the diversity of real beauty… is core to our beliefs”. But “core” here seems skin-deep when it fails to penetrate into the pores of its parent company and its subsidiaries.
As an Argentinean woman who studies gender in the media, I find it hard to be surprised by Weinstein’s misdeeds. Machismo remains deeply ingrained in Latin American society, yes, but even female political leaders in supposedly gender-equal paradises like Holland and Sweden have told me that they are criticized more in the press and held to a higher standard than their male counterparts.
How could they not be? Across the world, the film and TV industry – Weinstein’s domain – continues to foist outdated gender roles upon viewers.
Television commercials are particularly guilty, frequently casting women in subservient domestic roles.
In it, a princess eager to receive her prince remembers that – gasp – the floors in her castle tower are a total mess. Thanks to Cif’s magic scouring fluid, she has time not only to clean but also to get dolled up for the prince – who, in case you were wondering, has no physical challenges preventing him from helping her tidy up.
But why should he, when it’s a woman’s job to be both housekeeper and pretty princess?
Somewhat paradoxically, advertisements may also cast men as domestic superheroes. Often, characters like Mr. Muscle will mansplain to women about the best product and how to use it – though they don’t actually do any cleaning themselves.
More recently, there’s been a shift – perhaps an awkward attempt at political correctness – in which women are still the masters of the home, but their partners are shown “helping out” with the chores. In exchange, the men earn sex object status.
We’ve come a little way, baby
Various studies on gender stereotypes in commercials indicate that although the advertising industry is slowly changing for the better, marketing continues to target specific products to certain customers based on traditional gender roles.
This year, U.N. Women teamed up with Unilever and other industry leaders like Facebook, Google, Mars and Microsoft to launch the Unstereotype Alliance. The aim of this global campaign is to end stereotypical and sexist portrayals of gender in advertising.
As part of the #Unstereotype campaign, Unilever also undertook research on gender in advertising. It found that only 3 percent of advertising shows women as leaders and just 2 percent conveys them as intelligent. In ads, women come off as interesting people just 1 percent of the time.
Britain paves a path
Even before it was forced to reckon with allegations that Harvey Weinstein had also harassed women in London, the United Kingdom was making political progress on the issue of women’s portrayal in the media.
In July, the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority announced that the U.K. will soon prohibit commercials that promote gender stereotypes.
“While advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes,” its press release stated, “tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole.”
As of 2018, the agency says, advertisements in which women are shown as solely responsible for household cleaning or men appear useless around kitchen appliances and unable to handle taking care of their children and dependents will not pass muster in the U.K. Commercials that differentiate between girls’ and boys’ toys based on gender stereotypes will be banned as well.
The U.K.‘s move is a heartening public recognition that gender stereotypes in the media both reflect and further the very real inequalities women face at home and at work.
Worldwide, the International Labor Organization reports, women still bear the burden of household chores and caretaking responsibilities, which often either excludes them from pay work or leaves them relegated to ill-paid part-time jobs.
In the U.K., men spend on average 16 hours per week on domestic tasks, while women spend 26. The European Union average is worse, with women dedicating an average of 26 weekly hours to men’s nine hours on caretaking and household tasks.
In Argentina, my home country, fully 40 percent of men report doing no household work at all, even if they’re unemployed. Among those who do pitch in, it’s 24 hours a week on caretaking and domestic chores for men. Argentinean women put in 45 hours.
You can do the math: On average, Argentinean women use up two days of their week and some 100 days annually – nearly one-third of their year – on unpaid household labor.
These inequalities, combined with advertising that reinforces them, generate what’s called the “sticky floors” problem. Women – whether would-be investment bankers or, I dare say, aspiring Hollywood stars – don’t just face glass ceilings to advancement, they also are also “stuck” to domestic life by endless chores.
The cultural powers that be produce content that represents private spaces as “naturally” imbued with female qualities, gluing women to traditional caregiving roles.
This hampers their professional development and helps keep them at the bottom of the economy pyramid because women must pull off a balancing act between their jobs inside and outside of the domestic sphere. And they must excel at both, all while competing against male colleagues who likely confront no such challenges.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama once pointed out this double standard in homage to his then-competitor Hillary Clinton. She, he reminded an audience in 2008, “was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards in heels.”
The sticky floor problem puts women in a position to be exploited by men like Weinstein, who tout their ability to help female aspirants to get unstuck. Until society – and, with it, the media we create – comprehend that neither professional success nor domesticity has a gender, these pernicious powerful dynamics will endure.