A social media outcry over an advertisement for Dove body wash which showed a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman has escalated into a public relations disaster for the Unilever brand.
The 3-second video clip, posted on Dove’s US Facebook page on Friday, reminded some social media users of racist soap adverts from the 19th century or early 20th century that showed black people scrubbing their skin to become white.
Dove removed the clip and apologised, saying on Twitter that the post had “missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully”.
But the apology failed to stem a torrent of online criticism, with some social media users calling for a boycott of Dove products, while conventional media outlets in the United States and Europe were also seizing on the story.
In Britain, the controversy featured prominently in Monday’s television breakfast shows, with guests debating how the ad got through the company’s approval process and whether it was indicative of a broader problem with racism in marketing.
On Twitter, posts including the hashtag #BoycottDove, which started over the weekend among US users, were appearing in multiple European languages.
“In short, racism is back in fashion and brands are looking to benefit,” wrote user @Beatrix B. in French.
In the full clip, the black woman removed her t-shirt to reveal the white woman, who then lifted her own top to reveal an Asian woman.
“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,” Dove said in a statement.
The black-to-white transition was reminiscent in the eyes of some viewers of infamous soap ads from history, some of which were posted on social media.
In one example from the 1880s, a black child is pictured bathing in a tub while a white child offers him a bar of soap. After using the soap, the black child looks delighted to see that his skin has turned white.
Dove declined to say how the ad was produced and approved. It said it was “re-evaluating our internal processes for creating and approving content”.
A previous Dove ad, which showed three women side by side in front of a before-and-after image of cracked and smooth skin, caused an uproar in 2011 because the woman positioned on the “before” side was black while the “after” woman was white. Dove said at the time all three were supposed to “demonstrate the ‘after’ product benefit”.