The advertising elephant in the room

17 May


On Friday 31st March 2017, Nivea, the skin-care brand that is owned by the Hamburg-based company Beiersdorf Global AG, launched a promotional campaign for its “invisible” deodorant aimed at customers in the Middle East.

It was intended to promote Nivea’s “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant with the advert depicting the back of a woman’s head with long, dark, wavy hair tumbling down the back of her all-white outfit, shot against a brightly lit window.

The company chose to launch the campaign via social media and put out the adverts on its Facebook page. With the Facebook campaign linked to the company’s Twitter page, the opportunity for the campaign to reach a wider public and for them to engage with it was enhanced. Unfortunately for Nivea, the response was not what they anticipated.

When the campaign went live, public furore was ignited by the strapline the company had attached to the image - below the woman’s flowing hair, in bold, blue capital letters ran the slogan: “WHITE IS PURITY.”

Nivea 2

Within a very short time, Twitter was buzzing with negative comments connecting the strapline with racism.

What the HELL is this? White Purity? Shame, Shame, Shame on you. Fire your marketing person and anyone who approved this ad,” Tweeted one user.

“These glaring missteps are directly related to lack of internal inclusiveness,” said one PR professional’s Tweet.

Things took a turn for the worse when right-wing activists started praising the campaign on Nivea’s Facebook page and even adding images of Adolph Hitler appearing to endorse the product. This lead to even more negative Tweets and Facebook comments.

Wow @NiveaUSA. This is horrendous. Your comments are FULL of society’s refuse. This cleared your marketing department? #prnightmare” read one Tweet.

Even worse was to follow, as white supremacist groups attached themselves to the campaign, claiming it supported their racist agendas as they set about posting on Twitter and Facebook.

This resulted in the Daily Mail publishing an image of a post by one of the groups on Nivea’s Facebook page, which read, “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.”

“Nivea has chosen our side and the most liked comments are glorious,” read one far-right Tweet, that carried a picture of Nivea’s Facebook post. Another far-right group went so far as to encourage its followers to “LIKE ALL (Nivea) COMMENTS, BUY THEIR PRODUCTS.”

The post on Facebook stayed live for the weekend until the PR storm reached the ears of the Nivea PR team and it was taken down, but by that time the team were in firefighting mode. Media requests for comment were ignored while the team devised a strategy to deal with the backlash.

Nivea set about responding to every Tweet in person, taking the position that everyone who had commented deserved personal contact. In doing so, it distanced itself from any of the Tweets or comments made by the far-right groups.

NiveaUK tweeted: @benjancewicz@plumandmustard@NIVEAUSA This was not a @niveauk post, the NIVEA Middle East post was not meant to be offensive. We deeply apologise and it’s been removed.

NIVEA USA tweeted: @maej43@wickdchiq@niveauk The NIVEA Middle East post was not meant to be offensive. We apologize. It’s been removed. NIVEA values diversity and tolerance.

The company then followed that up with a media statement apologising for the post, which it said had been removed after “concerns risen about ethnic discrimination.”

The media statement read as follows; “We are deeply sorry to anyone who may take offense to this specific post. After realizing that the post is misleading, it was immediately withdrawn. Diversity and equal opportunity are crucial values of NIVEA: The brand represents diversity, tolerance, and equal opportunity. We value difference. Direct or indirect discrimination must be ruled out in all decisions by, and in all areas of our activities.”

However, a connected advert for the same product with the strapline “Black Stays black. White Stays White.” was still live in the Nivea Middle East Facebook page two days after the offending one had been taken down.

So where did Nivea, a company that had been caught out with advertising deemed to be racially offensive in the past, go wrong? How did it not see the elephant in the room that was so glaringly obvious in hindsight?

The preparation of a PR campaign should take up as much, if not more time than the implementation of it. What’s more, it should look at every angle of possible interpretation by all audiences.

I have no idea who put this original advert together or who approved it for publication – but I will bet a pound to a penny that they overlooked the importance of semiotics and how images and language are interpreted by various readers. It would be easy to point the finger at one or two people in this campaign and blame them – but surely it was seen and approved by a large number of people who should have said, at some point, “hang on a minute, can this be interpreted in a different way?” Unless you look at your advert from as many different hilltops as possible, you are not in a position to anticipate the potential responses to it.

Equally important is getting comments from various people “before” the advert is approved for publication. If you are using an agency or in-house team to develop the advert, they have a responsibility to carry out the blue-sky thinking which identifies potential risks – but they are only human and can get carried away with their own ideas and not see the pitfalls; not that that is an excuse. As commissioners of the advert, the company it is promoting also has a responsibility to run PR health and safety checks on a planned advert. There is no absolute guarantee that an advert will not upset or offend someone, the options for interpretation and the multiplicity of varying opinions held by audiences precludes that – however, putting the right checks and balances in place before publication will prevent you making the same mistakes as Nivea did here.

With thanks to Amy B Wang and the Washington Post.

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