Ah, Unilever… You are such a horrible company.
There is a debate going on on many blogs whether or not this advertisement is racist. And you might have guessed what I think: hell yes it is.
Dove has accomplished something truly remarkable with this: a fail on so many levels, all wrapped up in a nice little picture. Marketing a new product “that actually improves the look of your skin,” the ad shows three women in bath towels, standing in front of two pictures in a setting that looks like an art gallery. The “before” picture is a “painting” of seemingly cracked and rough skin (as it supposedly looks before using moisturising products), the “after painting” shows a smooth skin surface.
Dove’s “real beauty” campaign has had its fails before, for example when they made quite clear that their definition of “real beauty” apparently does not include scars, tattoos or certain body shapes. This ad, however, brings their attempt to sell more products through diversity to a different level of discrepancy and hypocrisy.
The three women in the picture are standing in a line that makes one recall ads for dietary products, with a “before” and “after” picture. Dove had the great idea to position the women according to skin colour/”shade”: Starting with an African American woman with curly black hair, to a (supposedly) Latina with straight brown hair, and finally ending the little get-together with a Caucasian woman with blonde straight hair.
Now the fun starts: The African American woman is conveniently placed under the “before” label, whereas the Caucasian woman is standing beneath the “after” headline. Dove, therefore, seems to suggest that using their products has the great effect of eventually lightening skin, or, to use their phrasing: “actually improve” its “look.” Moreover, the further we get to the Caucasian model, the more weight the women lose. Judging from the picture, Dove has found the recipe for “real beauty:” being white, blonde, straight-haired and skinny. Isn’t that practical, especially since we have just recently been taught by Satoshi Kanazawa that white women are “scientifically” proven to be more attractive?!
Dove’s white-centredness does not stop here, however. The skin “paintings” in the background show skin as being light, maybe with a slight tan. In times when the colourism of the infamous brown paper bag test is still far from being obsolete, most notably in (mainstream) art and entertainment, and plasters are still being referred to as “flesh”-coloured (at least in germany), Dove should have thought about those images twice before equating them with an allegedly universal look of “skin.” This even reinforces the white-centred image the campaign is conveying with the arrangement of the women in front of the “skin” pictures.
Whereas it is a possibility that the creators of this advertisement and the people who approved of it were not aware of these implications and effects, it is not an excuse. Having the option to be unaware of racist attitudes, pictures and subtle messages is a form of white privilege. Not being bothered by these images and accusing others of being too sensitive (… angry Black woman, anyone?!) is a form of white privilege. Being able to equate “skin” with “white skin,” setting this as the default and normality, and setting it as a default for “good looks” is a form of white privilege.
Peggy McIntosh has spelled out the various forms of White Privilege 20 years ago. [pdf] But Unilever knows that; they just don’t care – Whiteness works. Especially when you’re the leading supplier of skin-bleaching creams in India.