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Dove, a Unilever beauty company, has always tried to promote beauty for women of all shapes, sizes, and colors and has included models of such in many advertising campaigns for their beauty products. Yet an advertisement from October 2017 has sparked controversy over the portrayal of non-white women in these. In the advertisement for a body lotion, a black model was wearing a shirt with her skin tone color. She then proceeded to remove the shirt from herself, and under the shirt now was a white model who was then wearing a shirt with her own skin tone before taking off her shirt to turn into an Asian model with her proper skin tone. Some viewers considered this to be racist, while others, including the model, did not take issue with this and felt that the advertisement was blown out of proportion, which leads us to the question: how could an advertisement with a diverse set of models have been perceived as racist? A review and application of Stuart Hall’s cultural studies theory will help us study such a thing. This paper will cover the theory, what happened during and in response to the advertisement apply it to the advertisement, and prescribe a way to prevent such a controversy in the future.
Cultural studies, a mass communications theory by sociology professor Stuart Hall, is a neo-Marxist form of critique that claims that mass media manufacture consent from the masses (the audience) to maintain dominant ideologies, frameworks that help us to interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence. According to cultural studies theory, the media enables the most powerful of people to remain in power by convincing the least powerful to remain unempowered. The history of the theory dates to when the Frankfurt School theorists, who were strong proponents of Karl Marx and his beliefs on economic determinism, the belief that human behavior is shaped by differences in available financial resources and gaps in power between the rich and the poor, thus creating the second component of the theory, which shows the worst side of capitalism. This is where the term “culture industries” comes from, which includes producers of television, radio, films, newspapers, and other forms of media. These culture industries produce and reproduce values and ideas by the swaying of hegemony over society. This swaying, production, and reproduction is not intentional; the media just does not monitor it, and it reinforces it. However, the theory prescribes things that people can do. They can simply consume the content the media produces and not raise any questions about the message, which is called operating inside the dominant code, although in this component, so there may not be a change that follows from this. They could apply a negotiable code by looking for exceptions to what is the norm, although the masses still generally follow the ideology perpetuated by the media. Finally, people can change the message by substituting an opposing code and deviate from the norm, thus seeing through biases and going against the establishment (Griffin, 2009). While this theory may apply especially to the news, it may also be used to understand the reactions to other forms of media, including advertisements.
In October 2017, Dove released a video advertisement for a new body lotion, and to do this, the video featured several models of different skin colors who would take their shirts off, which matched their skin tones, and then morph into each other in a sequence. One of the models, a black model, took her shirt off and turned into a white woman. Naomi Blake, a make-up artist, saw the advertisement on Facebook and commented, that the advertisement was “tone deaf”. Another viewer viewed this advertisement as the product being cleansing and good for people of all skin colors, as the white model took her shirt off and turned into another non-white woman. One commenter said, “I think they meant it’s for all skin types… it went from black to white to another race (BBC, 2017).”
However, not everybody agreed that there was racist intent in the advertisement. The model, Lola Ogunyemi, a Nigerian woman who was raised in the United States, spoke out and explained that she did not think that this was racist at all and that she was excited to have been offered a part in a global beauty campaign. Ogunyemi said in her article for The Guardian, “the experience I had with the Dove team was positive. I had an amazing time on set. All of the women in the shoot understood the concept and overarching objective – to use our differences to highlight the fact that all skin deserves gentleness.” However, she did state that Dove should be more careful and explain themselves better in the future to prevent the misunderstanding of their advertisements. “There is definitely something to be said here about how advertisers need to look beyond the surface and consider the impact their images may have, specifically when it comes to marginalized groups of women. It is important to examine whether your content shows that your consumer’s voice is not only heard, but also valued.” Dove issued an apology, stating, “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused (Ogunyemi, 2017).” To follow upon the advice of Ogunyemi and hearing the consumer’s voice, we must study why some may have perceived this advertisement as racist. While applying cultural studies theory to this artifact, we must also look at the history, both past and recent, of standards of beauty and beauty products in general as the components are applied.
The first component of the theory, the enabling of the most powerful to remain in power while undermining the least powerful, may be interpreted when the models change skin color. While this may not have been intended to be racist, considering a white woman changes into another woman of color a few seconds after she came to be, seeing a woman of color become a white woman may signify a “cleaner” woman than that of the woman before to some viewers, showing that this white woman may be better than the black woman. A historical example of a powerful group holding power over another group for race and beauty standards is when white British settlers were colonizing Australia and viewed the native Aboriginal people as unhygienic and dirty. Kathleen Jackson, a woman of Wiradjuri descent, wrote about her childhood, in which her grandmother always made her appear her very best when out in public. This was due to her grandmother’s upbringing under the Aboriginal Protection Act, a policy which allowed Aboriginal children to be removed from their families if state welfare officers deemed them to be “too unhygienic”. Standards of beauty were already drawn along the lines of class, gender, and race, and these expectations were used to justify colonial expansion and the oppression of native peoples through European economic and cultural ideals, and the Aboriginal people were viewed as an unhygienic and filthy, and to avoid removal, children were made to be beautiful by colonial standards. To take it even further, European colonialists believed it was possible to “breed out” indigenous features (Jackson, 2015). While these policies are not in effect today, the powerful have remained in power and dominate the beauty industry, as ethnic minorities are unemployed more often than the white majority in Western media (Jewell, 2017). And within the beauty industry today, there is yet another one of the components of of Stuart Hall’s cultural studies that has aided in maintaining the dominant ideology through the subtle swaying of capitalistic practices.
The second component of the theory, the reflection of capitalism at its worst, is visible within the beauty products and the promotion. Women may never live up to set beauty standards because of a physical feature, whether that be weight, scars, or skin color. Sadly, throughout history, capitalism has played a role in exploiting women into buying products to try to make themselves feel truly beautiful, whether they were buying the product for themselves to feel better, or promoting racist ideals. One advertisement for Pears soap, from 1884, depicts a white child bathing a black child. After the bath, the black child’s body has turned white, portraying how he is now “clean”. Another advertisement, this time for Nulla-Nulla, an Australian brand of soap from 1901, depicting an Aboriginal woman making a scary face, and all around her, a slogan surrounds her that says, “Knocks dirt on the head”. In addition, the woman was wearing a sign that said “dirt” on it to signify that she was “dirty”, a European colonial view. This was just for this one product, though, as the slogan for Nulla-Nulla was “Australia’s White Hope, the Best Household Soap” (Jackson, 2015). In another example, an advertisement for Cook’s Lightning Soap, showed an older white woman washing the filth off a young child, whose skin turned from a filthy shade to a white shade. (Mitchell, 2017) And standing outside by the window was a line of children who may either just be very filthy, but could pass for being black. And in addition to this advertising campaign being controversial, Dove has been in a partnership with Fair & Lovely, a company that makes skin whitening products that are sold in over forty countries (Conor, 2017). Overall, capitalistic marketing and advertising has insisted throughout history that darker skin means filthiness while white skin indicates purity and beauty.
The most notable component of this theory that can be applied to this artifact is the hegemonic nature of this advertisement that several viewers interpreted. With a history of the beauty industry perpetuating non-white people, especially women and children, as below the beauty standards and as women who need to wash their skin more, the dominant group, primarily white women, will be kept in place as the ideal standard of beauty, cleanliness, and “normality”. Jaywant Singh, professor of marketing at Kingston University, stated in an interview with The Independent, “Modern-day racial and gender prejudices have morphed into unconscious biases, and the popular reaction to the Dove ad mirrors that. On the face of it, the Dove ad comes across as racist, or more simply, as poorly executed by a culturally insensitive agency.” Some of these standards may not be as noticeable as one would find in a historical artifact, but there are still subtle ways that these notions may be perpetuated, not just in the controversial artifact involving the body wash, but in Dove’s recent past as well. In 2011, Dove released an advertisement with three models, from left to right: a black woman, an Asian woman, and a white woman. In the background was a color gradient with a dirty, cracked board on the left behind the black woman, and a clean, smooth board on the right near the white woman. Later, in 2015, a shopper noted a soft summer glow body cream to have a label that said, “for normal to dark skin”, implying that dark skin is abnormal, and that white is the standard for skin color and beautiful. Finally, returning to the recent advertisement, a switch from a black model to a white model perhaps was another reminder of these biases. While these advertisements may not have had any intent to be racist, the message of white signifying cleanliness and purity and darker colors being unhygienic and filthy was once again reproduced by the content of the advertisement, and the audience may reinforce this, even if unintentionally. “These products are often consumed by an individual to signal their desired self-identity, which in turn is shaped by the society and its prejudices,” Singh concluded (Petter, 2017).
As for why some viewers may have interpreted this advertisement as racist, there is good reason to believe why it would be perceived that way due to the beauty industry’s history, not just Dove’s history, of portraying white people and non-white people in different ways, especially when demonstrating the beauty or cleaning product in the advertisement. This racism has been perpetuated through advertisements showing how non-white people, especially women and children, were portrayed as being filthy or unclean before being washed with a brand of soap, only to turn white, perpetuating that they were now clean and beautiful. While there have been improvements in the beauty industry in advertising, such as portraying a wider variety of models, sometimes, racism is more subtly portrayed in ways where the audience and producers of the advertisement may not even realize.
One thing that we can learn from this incident is that hegemony does exist in the media, especially since we do not always notice what a medium may be reproducing, and this can reinforce ideologies involving beauty and race, as exemplified by this Dove body wash advertisement. Racism in the beauty industry is not just a part of the past that we have moved on from. Another thing we can learn from this, though, is that we can change this by altering our submissive culture by decoding the media, not just operate inside the dominant code and do nothing. We can look closely the next time we see a beauty advertisement. We can ask ourselves, “Who is this advertisement targeted to? How are each of the women portrayed? What is the slogan trying to say?” In doing this, we can also look to find exceptions to the norm and exemplify other portrayals which go against the norm. For example, depicting a non-white woman who is already beautiful without the use of a skin lightening product or a type of body wash may show that different kinds of beauty exist. Finally, we can substitute an opposing code to change the message that the media have reproduced throughout history. Like the negotiable code, we could portray people who are non-white as just as beautiful as white people. Although it is important to note that resisting the dominant ideology can be rather difficult, as the masses contain little power, so operating inside the dominant code is more common, but this can be changed.
With or without words, advertisements can carry meaning while they sway the masses, and sometimes, this swaying may intentionally or unintentionally reinforce ideologies that maintain power dynamics between groups. As consumers of the content produced, we must examine the content and message thoroughly to cause any change.
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