What the *#&$*” were they thinking?!: A Look at Dove’s Viral PR Disaster

10/10/2017 08:55 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2017

Dear Dove “Brand” — Please Assign A Human To Your Apology.

“What the *#&$*” were they thinking?!”

That’s pretty much what everyone is saying about that viral Dove ad, and I get it.

It’s what I said when I first saw that awful screenshot. It was so bad, my initial reaction was to write it off as “fake news,” something that must have been photoshopped. Dove couldn't be that blatantly racist, and at a glance, as a PR executive, I couldn’t see how this was an issue of simply being tone-deaf.

Everyone wants to know how the Dove PR team could have possibly missed this.

Here’s how.

That screenshot going viral isn’t the ad. It’s a screenshot from a video excerpt of the ad—and admittedly, the screenshot is pretty horrible. That screenshot from the GIF ad was obvious. Blatant. Racist. Disrespectful, even ignorant. Dove says the four-panel screenshot that’s going viral isn’t something the brand created or released. But even the 3-second GIF they did release on their US Facebook page is still pretty damming, especially in light of their history of racist soap-selling ads.

“Have you seen that Dove ad?” my adorable husband asked me in disbelief this weekend.

My husband and I are an interracial couple. He’s white, I’m black.

My husband, Jacob and I are a bi-racial couple. This Dove ad was the type of controversy perfectly primed for debate around our kitchen table.

We’ve been married for nearly 14 years. Although we’ve lived for most of our relationship on the west coast, we’ve still had to deal with our fair share of racism—not even counting the cultural differences that stem from marrying someone outside of your own race. So this Dove ad was the perfect type of controversy for our kitchen table.

I’m a mom of 3-year-old twins, run a public relations firm, often write for HuffPost, Entrepreneur and Forbes, and am taking graduate journalism classes at Harvard to exhaust my GI Bill. I’ve also recently started writing a book, documenting my experiences as a war correspondent in the U.S. military. So my time to keep up with the latest controversies setting the internet ablaze is pretty limited.

“No,” I replied. “What are you talking about?”

Jacob, an Emmy Award-winning photographer, works in television news and is always fascinated by a good story. He pulled up the photo on his phone. Because I’m black and have worked as a public relations executive for two decades as a crisis communicator, for places like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Environmental Protection Agency, he wanted to know my take. How could Dove’s PR team possibly make such a huge misstep?

I took a look at the screenshot, which appeared to show a black woman taking off a dirty brown shirt and then becoming clean, transforming into a red-haired white woman.

Maybe it’s because I wake up each day to the latest tweet President Trump has sent to little “Rocketman” or Puerto Rico, or maybe it’s because I was a little girl in 80s, long before Beyonce—when images on TV never reinforced that brown was indeed beautiful. But I’ve been desensitized just enough that I wasn’t outraged. I took it in stride, sad but par for the course in our current climate of divisiveness.

My husband and I dedicated at least three minutes to opinion, without any regard to facts, snarking about how Dove could have made such an awful PR mistake. And simply looking at that screenshot, I decided there was no other explanation than that Dove senior executives were blatantly racist. That they must feel emboldened to appeal to those who would agree that dirty black women would be much better if they were whitewashed.

That, obviously, in the current era of the Trump administration and the climate of embracing divisiveness instead of diversity, that this was OK. Maybe, even a publicity stunt.

I moved on. I had deadlines to meet, and didn’t think too much more about it.

Then I started to see the screenshot everywhere. It invaded my Instagram feed. It was all over Facebook and my Google News feed. Finally, while unwinding Monday evening after a long day with a glass of wine, scrolling through my Facebook feed and settling in with Netflix, I came across a post that made me want to know more.

It was a black woman responding to another black woman on Facebook who had posted the ad. Both have worked in PR or Marketing for decades, like me. Unlike most Facebook disagreements, their exchange was a respectful one. One woman, who originally posted, had only seen the screenshot and was horrified. The other commented, asking if she had seen the entire video, and then defended the ad, saying it actually wasn’t so bad.

Wasn’t so bad? I needed to see this full TV version of the video ad.

It wasn’t easy to find. The screenshot was everywhere. News coverage of the screenshot was everywhere. But the actual full ad, or at least a short excerpt, was finally located.

In response to setting the internet on fire on Friday, Dove pulled the ad on Saturday, releasing a desk statement pointing to the intent of their campaign, along with a mild apology.

“The short video was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong. 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. We have removed the post and have not published any other related content.”

It’s still hard to imagine how no one caught this—especially given the history of racist ads, specifically in the soap-selling business.

From my PR vantage point, Dove isn’t saying enough. Facing boycotts and the ire of the internet, Dove needs to explain how this happened.

Speaking on background today to one of their global brand spokespersons, a Vice President for Edelman, I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. I wanted this story to be a classic case study in crisis communications, indicative of a deep-rooted divisiveness in our quick-to-post and even quicker-to-respond viral world of so-called fake news and faux-facts.

I thought the video could redeem them, and when I first watched it, for me—it did. I reached out to an established African-American attorney friend, Kendrick Washington, who specializes in civil rights. I needed a litmus test—was I off base to give Dove a pass on this?

Like many others, Washington wasn’t sold on the apology.

“Honestly, I think they knew what they were doing and decided that any press is good press,” said Washington.

I’ve been a crisis communicator for decades, working in news or PR responding to crisis situations stemming from scandals to plane crashes, war zones to floods, earthquakes and hurricanes and too many oil spills to list. I get that in our fast paced world of PR, and the 24/7 news cycle, big campaigns are approved at a senior level. Social media has to be able to move much faster, often with interns at the helm, splicing off of approved material.

Approving every single social media post derived from a larger campaign would slow things to a stop. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. I reached out to Dove for an interview, expecting a desk statement. To my surprise, they wanted to speak on the phone—a rarity in a world of emailed desk statements and “controlling the message” at all costs.

Going in, I thought the conversation might be a reminder that we must look beyond the “tweet” to always get the full story. Unfortunately, in our headline-obsessed society where tweets are weaponized faster than lightening, it’s easy to jump to conclusions that rip us apart instead of bring us together.

I’m so desperate for brands to finally embrace diverse women as beautiful that I wanted to believe that Dove only wanted the best for women of color. Lola Ogunyemig, the Nigerian-British model featured in the tone-deaf ad, has spoken out in an Opinion Editorial for the Guardian, saying she’s no victim and explaining why she jumped at the chance to be a part of the campaign.

“Having the opportunity to represent my dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand felt like the perfect way for me to remind the world that we are here, we are beautiful, and more importantly, we are valued,” she wrote.

I get that. I grew up thinking that being beautiful meant having blonde hair and blue eyes. The beautiful women I saw on TV who were celebrated—that’s what they looked like. I remember thinking as a very young girl with frizzy, puffy hair and light brown skin that I wasn’t beautiful, wasn’t pretty enough, and there was nothing I could do about it.

It’s why I now celebrate brands that embrace diversity and personally seek out opportunities to show young girls that beauty starts on the inside, but externally comes in all shapes, sizes, shades, hues and textures.

Like most good stories, this one is complex and not quite black and white. Were it not for the history of similar ads—tone-deaf at best and racist at worst—I might even jump to their defense and say it’s impossible to approve every social media post that stems from a larger campaign. But given the history here, I wasn’t sold.

So, I spoke to Dove’s US spokesperson, a vice-president for Edelman. I let her know I thought the full television video campaign celebrated diversity and wanted to know their process for releasing the 3-second clip that probably should have been caught before release.

She had no comment, referring only to their official statement.

Could she share any info about the diversity within the team that made this decision? Nope.

The civil rights attorney and I were both baffled. I wanted to tell a story about how they had good intentions, why wouldn’t they respond?

“There must not be a single person of color working in their PR department for that to be a simple error,” said Washington. “ I refuse to believe anyone in this day and age is that obtuse.”

Would they at least defend or expand on their their intention to celebrate diversity with the campaign, as Ogunyemig suggested in her op-ed on the issue?

Again — nope. Not today.

Could they explain how this could happen after the Dove ad that came out in 2011, not to mention history of these type of racists ads released by soap advertisers?

Again, no. Please refer to our statement.

Could they at least attribute their on the record statement to a human?

“You can attribute to the Dove brand,” was all I got. It all left me far more outraged than when I watched the initial screenshot. It felt intentional, dismissive, fake.

Dove says they are a brand that is wholly committed to authenticity and what they call, “real” women, but their actions seem to be at odds with what they say is the ethos of their brand mission.

Today, there’s a happy, smiling African-American woman on the front page of their website, but the #boycottdove hashtag is only growing larger across multiple social media platforms.

Dove should have caught this before the social media clip was posted, but they didn’t. If there wasn’t such a historically damning paper trail for these type of ads, maybe there wouldn't be so much public outrage.

Whether or not you decide to #boycottdove, this is a reminder to all brands that the world has changed. Accountability, expectations and tensions are high.

Dove is most certainly in the midst of a crisis.

And right now, they need to truly apologize, like from a human. But they also need to explain—and instead they’ve closed ranks, pointing only to their desk statement and hoping this might go away, blow over with the next outrageous Trump tweet or apocalyptic natural disaster.

Personally, I’d advise a glance at the written rules of the Department of Defense for a situation like this: “Maximum disclosure, minimum delay.”

Until next time,

Be Disruptive.

Leverage Your Voice.

Shape the Conversation.

Xo,

Mary

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