Not knowing racism from bar of soap


A huge controversy broke out this weekend over what appeared to be a racist Dove soap advert that was posted on social media.

CHANGING FACE OF A SOCIALITE: Khanyi Mbau in 2014 and May this year

The advert seemed to portray the transformation of a dark-skinned black woman into a pale white woman.

In the advert, the black woman takes off her brown T-shirt, which clearly represents skin, and transforms into a very pale white woman in a creamy-white coloured top.

It is not clear whether there were more images within the campaign that portrayed other “ethnic” transformations, perhaps there are.

However, as the outrage grew online, more Dove adverts which hold similar racist subtext were shared.

One was of a product that is labelled “for normal to dark skin”– the implication here being that dark skin is abnormal!

Now, it is 2017, and I cannot believe that Dove, which is a product of Unilever, is totally blind and unaware of sensitivities to racism.

Was it a genuine misstep or cynical marketing? The crudeness of Dove’s racialisation of women’s beauty just seems to be quite deliberate and strategic in intent.

Could it be that Dove’s market research demonstrates that black women still harbour deep self-hate and subconsciously prefer to buy products that make them feel like they can attain beauty through “whitening” themselves?

Unilever is a consumer goods giant which has decades of marketing expertise in relation to black consumer tastes and preferences, I doubt this advert was conceived in error, as their later apology stated.

Could it be that Dove has worked out that the costs of being accused of racism by a small segment of the black population is outweighed by the market of black women who actually do not care about the politics of images and respond positively to the hint that Dove makes you lily white?

Although black people have pushed back for more than 50 years against racist advertising and the representation of whiteness as the pinnacle of beauty, it is clear that light skin continues to be idealised in consumer markets in Africa and Asia.

In 2013, Al Jazeera investigated skin lightening among women in Nigeria and stated that “according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59% in Togo, and 27% in Senegal. The reasons for this are varied but most people say they use skin-lighteners because they want ‘white skin’.”

In South African celebrity circles, celebrities such as Mshoza and Khanyi Mbau have been open about their cosmetic choices to lighten their skins.

Beyond celebrity circles there are rumours of rich black South African business women who fly over to New York to have their skins lightened by high-end dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons.

It worries me that African women still make these choices.

I wonder if it is the case that the black and proud message has fallen by the wayside over time and skin pigmentation – like breast size, bum shape, and hair texture – will more and more come to be seen as a consumer preference rather than a political question in and of itself.

What I do know though, is young urban women in particular still express huge insecurities about their bodies and that the media and advertising industries as a whole play a very large part in shaping women’s ideas of what the ideal body form is.

Twenty years ago, Dove caught me with an advert that focused much more on the “science” that goes into their bar of soap.

Their marketing, whether misleading or not, focused on the pH balance of their soap.

Now, there was some clever marketing that neither patronised women but also very cleverly gave women the impression that Dove was gentle with one’s skin – the colour, age or body shape of the woman was immaterial to that message.

Why couldn’t Dove have just stuck to that?


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