Shreyas Kulkarni

US actress Viola Davis talks self-worth in L'Oréal ad as her country’s anti-racism protests continue

The leading global cosmetics giant has also earned flak for double standards after it severed ties with UK model Munroe Bergdorf for speaking against a white supremacist rally in 2017.

Words are filled with unquenchable potency. Use them right, and they will deliver results that exceed expectations.

Think of Mark Antony's speech in William Shakespeare's play 'Julius Caesar', “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...” It roused a mob to turn against the men they hailed for assassinating Caesar. Or hear Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a dream' speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963; it was one of the defining moments of the American Civil Rights Movements.

There are countless examples saying the same thing, that words are powerful. Nobody knows this better than brands, and they use words to full effect to not just up sales, but also, from time time, shed light on society's state, and the positive and affirmative societal changes needed.

On May 28, 2020, L'Oréal Paris USA released a digital film featuring its spokesperson, actor and producer Viola Davis. In the 121-second-long ad film, she talks about what is, perhaps, one of the most popular brand taglines 'You're Worth It', and what it stands for.

Davis says it's a beautiful reminder to all of us that "... You have reason and rarity." She says one carries value that never depreciates and asks people to repeat something and mean it: "I'm Worth it".

The ad film is from a campaign called 'Lesson of Worth', with McCann Paris behind it. As per AdAge, the campaign "... aims to bring more dimension to the brand's long-running 'worth it' tag."

It also reported the statement of Charlotte Franceries, global president of McCann Beauty Team, “Empowerment has always been part of L’Oréal Paris; being a positive external voice for all women is essential. Hearing that one is beautiful is a start, but believing that you are—knowing that you have value and worth—is real power.”

It's something you can expect from the beauty brand that, for decades, has espoused self-worth, and it is also expressed in its tagline. 'Because You're Worth It' was born in 1973 at McCann Erickson in New York, from the mind of its 23-year-old copywriter Ilon Specht. 1973 was also the year when the second-wave feminist movement was in full steam.

Carrying forward its legacy of empowerment, the ad film encourages everyone to believe in their worth. And, as mentioned before, it's only when you utter the 'words', will you start to believe in it.

However, the ad also comes with subtext. It was released at a time when the United States is rattled with nationwide protests because of George Floyd, a black American's death at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who is now facing murder and manslaughter charges.

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#Vote.....or go back to business as usual.

A post shared by VIOLA DAVIS (@violadavis) on

Davis is a Black woman and a brilliant actress. She's won an Academy Award, a Tony Award, and was the first Black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, among other accolades. She's also a vocal advocate for respect and equality, and her messaging in this film appeals to not just the communities in the US, but also to a global audience to stand up for what's right, instead of inaction.

L'Oréal Paris wanted to get its message across during these tumultuous times, and they chose the right messenger.

But the ad film, despite praise, has garnered flak, too. UK model Munroe Bergdorf has slammed the beauty giant's support to the #BlackLivesMatter movement as nothing but a PR stunt. In 2017, L'Oréal Paris ended its association with Bergdorf after her comments on a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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I wanted to give @lorealparis 48 hours before writing this to see if a public apology was possible. But their choice to ignore me and not acknowledge the emotional, mental and professional harm that they caused me since sacking me in 2017, after speaking out about white supremacy and racism, speaks volumes. So does their choice to not engage with the thousands of black community members and allies who have left comments of concern on their last two posts, in response to their claim to support the black community, despite an evident history of being unwilling to talk about the issues that black people face globally because of white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is a movement for the people, by the people. It is not here to be co-opted for capital gain by companies who have no intention of actually having difficult conversations regarding white supremacy, police brutality, colonialism and systemic racism. It cannot be reduced to a series of corporate trends by brands like L'Oréal who have no intention of actually doing the work to better themselves or taking ownership of their past mistakes or conscious acts of racial bias. I would not have been sacked if I had said what I said and was a cisgender, straight, white woman. It just wouldn't have happened. If you want to stand with black lives matter then get your own house in order first. This could have been a moment of redemption for L'Oréal, a chance for them to make amends and lead by example. We all get things wrong, we all make mistakes, but it's where you go from there that is a signifier of who you are. L'Oréal claiming to stand with the black community, yet also refusing to engage with the community on this issue, or apologise for the harm they caused to a black female queer transgender employee, shows us who they are - just another big brand who seeks to capitalise from a marginalised movement, by widening their audience and attempting to improve their public image. Brands need to be aware of their own track record. It's unacceptable to claim to stand with us, if the receipts show a history of silencing black voices. Speaking out can’t only be “worth it” when you’re white. Black voices matter.

A post shared by MUNROE (@munroebergdorf) on

A part of Bergdorf’s Instagram post reads, "L'Oréal claiming to stand with the Black community, yet also refusing to engage with the community on this issue, or apologise for the harm they caused to a Black female queer transgender employee, shows us who they are - just another big brand who seeks to capitalise from a marginalised movement, by widening their audience and attempting to improve their public image." You can read the entire post above.

In these times of strife, several brands are taking a stand. Sometimes, they work, and sometimes, they don't. Let’s see if L'Oréal responds to Bergdorf’s comments.

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