Dove’s Racially Insensitive Ad Has Agency Veterans Calling for More Minority Hiring

'We see it over and over and over again. It's not just Dove.'

The brand had to pull its ad and apologize over the weekend. Getty Images

Responses to Dove’s racially insensitive clip of a black woman appearing to shed her body for a “cleaner” white version in a now-removed Facebook post promoting the brand’s body wash provided a reminder that the ad industry is still very much divided. The full video included three women with differing skin tones, and social media users compared it to more blatantly racist “whitewashing” ads from the 19th century.

Agency veterans who spoke with Adweek in the wake of the controversy questioned how the ad received approval.

“This is what’s troubling about what’s going on in the space,” said Ryan Ford, vp and chief creative officer at Los Angeles multicultural marketing agency Cashmere. “Either there aren’t minorities in the room when decisions are being made or there are, but they aren’t empowered to say anything.”

Minorities in the agency world are growing tired of seeing brands repeatedly make the same mistakes.

“[When I first saw it], to be honest, I was like, ‘Here we go again,'” said Lewis Williams, chief creative officer at multicultural agency Burrell Communications. “We see it over and over and over again. It’s not just Dove. It’s the entire industry from clients to agencies not seeing the obvious [undertones]. What’s unfortunate is  next week we’ll be having the same conversation.”

In April, Shea Moisture came under fire for an ad appearing to exclusively target white women, thereby alienating the African-American women who had historically been the brand’s primary consumers.

This also is not the first time Dove has been accused of racial insensitivity. In 2011, the brand released an ad that depicted a “before and after” skin chart, with a black woman under the “before” sign and a white woman under the “after.” At the time, Dove said all of the women were supposed to depict the “after.”

“Hire more black and brown people. It’s really that simple,” said mono producer Amalia Nicholson when asked what agencies and their clients can to do prevent such controversies in the future. Nicholson produces the podcast Borrowed Interest along with ad professionals Shareina Chandler of Colle McVoy and Leeya Jackson of Fallon that addresses the challenges minority women face in the office.

Chaucer Barnes, chief audience officer at Translation, agreed with Nicholson.

“[It’s] is an important issue but one one with a fairly simple solution: hire and empower people who reflect the cultural points of view that you’ll face on Twitter no matter what,” he wrote in a statement. “This doesn’t suggest that an objectionable asset can’t come from a well-balanced team. But when it does, if the process has been inclusive, there’s less chance that the brand will add insult to injury with the obligatory ‘oh-my-gosh-that-never-once-occured-to-us-because-we’re-too-pure-of-heart’ apology—which is increasingly as bad than the original sin scenarios like this.”

Nicholson, Ford and Williams also agreed that the following Twitter apology from Dove was in itself insensitive:

“It was flippant,” Nicholson said.

“The response takes you back to why it happened in the first place,” Williams said. “It’s not just a little misstep. [The apology] lacked sincerity.”

“It was a half-assed nonapology,” Ford said.

Dove is a longtime client of the WPP agency Ogilvy & Mather, but it is unclear whether the video was created by Ogilvy or an in-house team. A Dove spokeswoman declined to clarify who was behind the ad, and Ogilvy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Williams said whoever developed and approved of the ad needs to make a personal, public apology beyond Dove’s tweet.

“They need to be very public about what they’re doing, who they’re hiring,” he said. “If you’re not coming forth, how serious are you?”

@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.