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Dove and The Longstanding Tradition of Racist Soap Advertising

In 2017, Dove aired an advertisement that got extremely critiqued for racism. This ad showed two women who apply the dove bodywash, and then transition from black women to white women. This shift from a black woman to a white one is reminiscent of a typical racist beauty-product advertising cliché: a "filthy" black person becoming "white" after being purified or cleansed. Unfortunately, rather than breaking away from this outdated standard and aiming for diversity, this dove commercial contributed to the longstanding tradition of racist soap advertising.


Here are some old adverts with obvious racist connotations to give you a better idea:




Pears Advertisement, 1884.

This soap ad shows two children in a bathroom; one black and one white. The ad mentions the phrase "For Improving The Complexion", and shows the white kid washing away the dark complexion of the black kid. It conveys the idea that white people are superior to black people by showing how to wash away the “blackness” off a black person. It also implies how washing it away will make the blacks happy (portrayed by a smile) and in turn, shows that trying to be white is in their best interest. This Pears ad further shows that Pear's soap will civilize Africans, wash away their barbarism, and bring these primitive people closer to becoming civilized.





N.K Fairbank Co’s Soap Wrapper, 1860s.

This old advertisement shows a white girl with blonde hair (objective American beauty standard) asking an Afro-American girl Why her mother doesn’t wash her with Fairy Soap. This ad directly implies that if the black girl had been using the soap, she would have been as white and “pure” as the other girl. Furthermore, the implication that the Afro-skin American's appears dirty because it is darker than the complexion of the white girl is also evident. This was first published in the 1860s, whereas slavery was declared illegal in 1865. Hence, it is understandable why most advertising of the time did not treat African Americans fairly. But seeing brands like Dove following the same trope in modern times is disappointing to say the least.


Looking at these ads, one wonders if they are any different from the ones Dove released in 2017.


Moreover, this was not the first time Dove had shown such a transformation. In 2011, a black woman transitioned into white woman after using dove's body lotion. This time, although the advertisement was soon removed with the following tweet:


"An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence it caused."

The removal, however, did not undo the harm done, as most viewers advocated for a boycott of the brand. While a Dove spokesman attempted to justify the ad by claiming that it was intended to celebrate diversity, this does not appear to be the case. The advertisement plainly showed a black woman being “purified” with the body wash and turning white.


With these instances of racial imagery in advertisements, it is critical to recognize that advertising does not work in a one-way manner; rather, it reinforces the values that characterize our world. So, what do these advertisements reveal about our society's moral values? And about our society's attitude towards the black community? These types of tone-deaf advertising surely provide society with numerous reality checks. Is it still possible to live in a world based on the ideology of white supremacy? Are we still trying to instill the notion that black people are inferior? Is this so popular among white people that African Americans don't even have a say in how the media portrays them?


It's also worth noting that if the positions were reversed, and Dove depicted a white woman transitioning to a black one, the ad would not have been perceived as problematic by both the white and black communities. The other way around is problematic because it is directly related to how African Americans and the black community is treated in America; they are judged by the color of their skin and are habitually discriminated against because of subjective beauty standards.


Dove never answered to the question of how many African Americans in their organization examined the advertisement before it was posted. In addition, the company refused to admit and apologize for using racism as a marketing strategy to encourage customers to buy soap. It may be argued that because racial discourse is so important, we should not rely on a beauty company to facilitate it. However, such kind of thinking conveniently ignores how beauty companies like Dove use racism as a marketing strategy. They imply that you must be white to be beautiful, and that they will assist you in becoming white. They have persuaded millions of people that they need to buy these whitening products in order to meet the social standards of beauty.


In conclusion, the never-ending practice of exploiting racism to sell your products must stop. The pushback against advertisements with racial overtones is crucial and necessary, but the companies at fault must accept responsibility for their actions and work to improve. To just continue the "apologizing" cycle for such racially insensitive commercials that are causing so much harm and undoing any progress achieved in terms of combating racism in America is meaningless. Such regrets are only valid till the subsequent obnoxious advertisement is seen. Nobody knows where or when it will come to an end. But it should stop now.

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