Racial Stereotypes in PR Campaigns

By: Lindsay Mann

Editor: Divya Thirunagari

Dove apologises for ad showing black woman into white one

This isn’t the first time Dove rolled out a racist ad

Dove’s ‘racist’ soap ad turns into a major disaster for Unilever brand

These are just a few of the headlines that surfaced earlier this month after Dove posted on social media a three second video, where an African American woman peels off her brown shirt and turns into a white woman. Dove immediately released an apology statement, but it was too late. The internet had already delved into a frenzy of anger, disbelief, and disappointment.

The campaign brought up an interesting question: who let this happen? Dove is a large company, and surely their marketing team is huge. This ad must’ve been approved by dozens of people, and it’s astonishing that no one along the approval process found the campaign to be offensive or insensitive.

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Dove is not the only (and certainly not the first) brand to create racist advertisements. As explained in an Atlantic article, McDonald’s ran an advertisement campaign in the 1970s that specifically featured and targeted African Americans. The ads from this campaign employed the use of “g-dropping”, a term typically used in slang. Meanwhile, all McDonald’s ads that featured and were geared towards Caucasians used only proper grammar.

And then, there are campaigns that still embrace racism, but tend to focus more on white privilege. Who could forget the recent Pepsi advertisement fiasco where Kendall Jenner attends a Black Lives Matter protest, and ends up being the peacemaker by handing a police officer a Pepsi. The ad completely diminished the hard work of people in the streets protesting for a cause they believed in, and capitalized on a civil rights movement in order to sell a product.

It’s a fine line using racial stereotypes to be thought-provoking and offensive. For example, Proctor & Gamble recently came up with “The Talk”, a video that touches on conversations many African American parents have with their children about racial bias in the world we live in.

While the ad received a majority of positive reviews, there was also significant backlash. Jamilah Lemieux, Vice President of Digital at i-One Digital, shares,

I guess I’m struggling to find the intended audience for this commercial. If it is in fact African-Americans then one can say you’re preaching to the choir…[if it] is targeted toward white Americans… then I have to say this is pretty commendable.

– Jamilah Lemieux, Vice President of Digital at i-One Digital

So how can PR professionals and companies make sure their messages don’t contain underlying racial messages?

There is no clear answer.

But there are steps we can take as professionals to make a difference. But here are the beginning steps: think about and visualize how your campaign might be perceived by others, have someone on your team who specializes in ethnic studies or a similar field, and read up on case studies of the media portrayals of various racial groups to understand the stereotypes they’ve been given in the media. Understanding your audience also means understanding their history.


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