Suraj Ramnath and Ashwini Gangal

Learning from the Dove fiasco

A look at what our experts said about Dove's 3-second GIF that was deemed racist by many.

Dove Body Wash, personal care brand from the stable of Unilever, recently launched a three second GIF (graphics interface format) campaign on Facebook. In the video uploaded on the social networking website by Dove USA, three women of different races - black, white and brown - are shown morphing into one another, in that order.

Learning from the Dove fiasco

A screenshot of Dove Body Lotion's ad posted by a Facebook user Naythemua
Click here to enlarge
The campaign was bashed by netizens across social media platforms, after which the brand pulled the video down and issued an apology on Twitter. It reads: "An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused."

What can brands and their custodians learn from the Dove fiasco? Was Dove's apology adequate? What does this chain of events reveal about the times we live in? Will this hurt the brand's 'Diversity within beauty' stance in the long term?

Edited excerpts.

Santosh Padhi (Paddy), co-founder and chief creative officer, Taproot Dentsu

Learning from the Dove fiasco

Santosh PadhiDove has always done very insightful and powerful work with their proposition/ belief of 'real beauty' in most part of the world; it's very surprising thus, to see this piece of work which lacks heart and soul and is in contrast to their belief. It's just a purely unbelievable product demo (very rarely must they have done such unbelievable over the top work) where they are saying they wanted to convey diversity, but unfortunately failed to communicate that. This is where I feel you need the experts, the story tellers, those who have been trained and have been doing this for years which will obviously come at a cost but who will convey the message correctly - be it in a single frame, GIF or a 30 second film. The cost cutting approach or not going to an expert because it will cost a little more money, will result in something like this more often and brands have to pay a lot more with bigger emotional dents.

Neeraj Chaturvedi, Group CMO,, and

Learning from the Dove fiasco

Neeraj ChaturvediGiven the social context, I find that the brand's judgement to go ahead with such an advert is wrong. While I don't think the ad itself is overly racist; the product description which reads 'Normal to Dark Skin' sounds very racist. That's really asking for it, especially when this comes on the back of another 2011 Dove 'Before/After' ad which got flak for a similar issue. I don't think the brand meant it the way it sounds, but that's when one would expect a seasoned marketing company not to mess up; especially on a brand which believes beauty is only skin-deep and that it's the inner beauty that shines. It is ironic that they have managed to be embroiled over skin colour issues. This is going to hurt them.

If I were to put out an apology, it would not be in written form... it would be in video form; the sincerity of the brand and its custodians would be more evident. It would have been better than hiding behind carefully crafted words.

Today, there are political and social divides which are being perpetuated. So one needs to be extra careful since nerves are raw on issues of race, religion, immigration, gender, nationality, and just about everything. And with social networks, this polarisation is almost instantaneously fanned, especially in the US, given the divide on 'Black Lives Matter', etc. The battle lines are drawn and every brand has to be careful since people are very sensitive. The recent Kendall Jenner controversy (Pepsi commercial) is also an indicator of the same.

I think Dove has enough equity to weather this storm. So it will cause a short-term dent, yes. But in the long-term, it should be fine because fundamentally, I don't think the brand is shallow and racist. And even if for a second we assume it was, in terms of business, it just does not make sense for it to vacate the 'inner beauty' positioning. Consistency on that theme will win back customers.

Brand consultant MG Parameswaran (Ambi)

Learning from the Dove fiasco

MG ParameswaranBrands are keen on being active on social media24x7 to join conversations and to participate in the dialogues happening around the world. In this effort they are constantly looking for ideas that can become talk-worthy. The days of an agency taking one week for a print ad and a month or more for a TV campaign is under threat. But in the effort to be edgy and fun, a brand may step on to a minefield, the way Dove seems to have. The big new feature in the iPhone 8 seems to be the instant GIF creator, so we cannot find fault with Dove for trying to ride the GIF wave, but they seem to have stepped on a mine.

I think Dove has apologised promptly and emphatically. A brand that does it quickly is often quickly forgiven by consumers.

Brands have to be agile to opportunities on the web, to create interesting content that gets shared organically. But while doing this, brands may end up doing the wrong things. So while marketing and communication has to become more agile, they also have to become more sensitive.

We are living in interesting times. What passed off as a perfectly good piece of communication can get panned in social media. What may have been a joke, can be misinterpreted intentionally. Some of these comments from the more volatile fringes can be ignored. Sometimes you end up crossing the line. If you do that, you need to apologise quickly, which is what Dove has done. There is a lesson in this for all brands.

Dove stands for inner beauty or real beauty. This GIF episode will not hurt the brand in the long term, as long as they don't make this a habit.

Learning from the Dove fiasco

Rahul DacunhaRahul Dacunha, owner, daCunha Communications

I think brands and agencies can certainly learn that there's a thin line between attitudes and ads. Don't enter into the area of issues that are controversial, like religion, race, creed and women's issues - as they are all tricky. Brands and agencies have to be more careful today than they were in the past, as consumers have become hyper-sensitive.

Learning from the Dove fiasco

Dip SenguptaDip Sengupta, former advertising professional

The dust is settling on the Dove controversy. The global brand, respected for some path breaking portrayal of women over the years, has issued an apology for a GIF that many saw as racist. Social media has passed judgement, the media has had its news cycle upper and all is quiet on the indignation front.


Except the model Lola Ogunyemi, (born in Nigeria, raised in Atlanta), the face of the commercial, who wrote in saying that she loved the communication and at no stage did she feel she was a part of any racist message. Ditto for the women working on the sets and the production. Ditto for her family and friends. That’s a fair amount of dittos.

She goes on to say “Dove should have defended... their choice to include me, an unequivocally dark-skinned black woman, as a face of their campaign. I am not just some silent victim of a mistaken beauty campaign. I am strong, I am beautiful, and I will not be erased.”

Except that whenever we were asked to give an example, at workshops and in discussions of a brand those voice stood out for being refreshingly real, it was always Dove. Nobody tackled women’s beauty with as much candour and grace as Dove. Its positioning of ‘Inner Beauty’ powerfully transcended the baubles of cosmetic looks.

Except that in a country that has made skin-whitening creams a GDP booster of sorts, where demands in matrimonial ads could be routinely classified as soft-core racist, the huge outrage on social media is a bit rich.

Except that somewhere, between the start of the three-second GIF and the boiling over of righteous anger, the point that the communication, using different skin tones to highlight the fact that all skin deserves gentleness, was lost.

A brand that made ‘Inner Beauty’ iconic, is now overtly or covertly sending out racist messages? My heart says no.

So who is at fault here? Not so sure. Perhaps it’s the fault-lines we inhabit these days.

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