Why Dove was right not to defend its ‘racist ad’

In crisis communications, often it's best just to admit defeat – painful as it may be – rather than defend the indefensible, writes PRecious’ Lars Voedisch

Who in our profession didn’t hear about the latest Dove ad campaign and the massive backlash it caused because of the allegedly racist thinking behind it?

What caused the massive reaction was a Facebook post showing how a black woman turned into a white one, leading to hoards calling the cosmetics brand out for ‘racism’.

For anyone who remembers the recent Chinese washing powder commercial, where a black gentleman was put in a washing machine, only to emerge white, the sense of deja vu was all too familiar.

On the surface, the actual Dove ad wasn’t bad: in different versions for online and broadcast, even more ethnicities were shown changing from one to another – including the white into an Asian woman – bringing across the campaign message that the moisturiser was great for all skin types.

It was that single frame-by-frame GIF showing a black woman becoming white that really broke the camel’s back – the observation being that turning white was the desired ideal outcome.

Perception creates reality, not logic

If you were a news outlet, which possible headline would drive traffic and ad revenues: one that tells the whole story or starts with the racism claim?

We are all guilty of amplifying the Dove story way beyond the attention it should have received based on facts.

Unfortunately logic doesn’t always work as people are too fast to judge by the first impression and perception creates reality. That’s the same mechanism used for click baits and fake news – or just clickable headlines to drive traffic.

Hence Unilever, after recognising this went out of control, didn’t have an alternative than to pulling the campaign and apologising. And that’s because when a crisis like this hits, it is rather impossible to calm emotionally charged debate with logic and facts.

Should the Dove team known better? Maybe. They have got ads wrong in the past and should have known that by just touching the concept of mixing different ethnicities, there is always the possibility of someone getting it wrong.

In crisis there is a simple guideline: Get it fast, get it right, get it out, get it over.

For Dove, it was most likely them not wanting to get into a public debate, that was unlikely to be won. Even if they were right from their perspective, the court of public opinion doesn’t necessarily choose factual arguments to decide who’s right or not.

Therefore in this perceived lose-lose-situation, Dove rightfully initiated a classic crisis communications sequence.

They were quite quickly aware of what’s happened and decided what would be perceived to be the right thing to do – fixing the situation by pulling the campaign and apologising publicly without too lengthy justifications. They put their position out but accepted they got it wrong. Defeat accepted: we’ll do better next time.

What’s crucial to accept is that in a moment of crisis, your job as brand fighter is not to be loved right away. Your job is to be make sure that you are hated less. And Dove got that right.

Apologise and you will be forgiven?

It is worth pointing out that Dove’s crisis was sparked by an ad campaign, not by a flawed product. In comparison, look at some airlines. Especially various American carriers, which have been under constant attack on social media over the last few years. Not because of a single isolated incident of questionable judgment, but because of a string of apparently deeply-rooted flaws in their product – providing quality air travel experiences.

If you make a mistake and own up to it, people will eventually forgive. But if you continue making similar mistakes that show deeply rooted flaws in your approach to deliver quality service and products and on top of that start arguing against public perception then the road to forgiveness might get blocked for longer than a brand can truly afford. And sometimes once that road is closed, the chance of reopening it can be little more than a fleeting hope.

Lars Voedisch is the managing director of Singpore-based agency PRecious Communications


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