As the scandal surrounding the latest Dove advert grows, we shouldn’t forget the racist history of its parent company, Unilever—a story of Imperialist expansion that reveals to us the history of global capitalist inequality.
This week, Dove found itself once again being forced to apologise in the wake of a public backlash against its racist advertising. Screenshots of its latest campaign, showing a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman underneath, have been widely circulated, provoking horrified comments on social media: how could Dove possibly think this was acceptable?
Predictably, there has now been an online backlash against the backlash, with many commentators sharing alternative screenshots of the white woman removing her top, in turn, to reveal an Asian woman. The ad couldn’t possibly be racist, goes this line of argument, if the white woman isn’t positioned above a woman of colour. Indeed, the British-Nigerian model at the heart of the controversy, Lola Ogunyemi, has spoken out against the accusation that she might have been duped by Dove into being the ‘before’ in the familiar ‘before and after’ trope of beauty campaigns. She emphasised how important it is that brands like Dove provide a creative vision that includes groups of women who are, too often, marginalised in the beauty industry.
I doubt that anyone involved in the advert felt that they were actively promoting racism, and Dove may well argue, with some justification, that the screenshots of the ad have been misinterpreted. But context matters. Dove has faced multiple backlashes in recent years against the exact same issue. In 2011, they distanced themselves from an advert that positioned a black woman underneath a ‘before’ picture of rough, cracked skin, and a white woman beneath the ‘after’ picture of smooth skin. Then, in 2015, there was a public outcry when Dove labelled their ‘summer glow’ body lotion “for normal to dark skin”. Their response was unconvincing: “there was a mix up with the batches, and we labelled the wrong product.”
But it is simply not good enough to keep making these mistakes, and defending them as unfortunate or accidental mix-ups that have been misinterpreted by the public. Context matters. Dove is owned by Unilever, who market multiple ranges of skin whitening products in Africa and Asia under names such as “Fair and Lovely” and “White Beauty”. When you’re a multinational corporation that profits from telling dark-skinned customers that pale skin is superior, you should prepare to be scrutinised for hypocrisy.
It’s one thing to champion whiteness in the global South, even as you market products in Europe and North America that proudly proclaim your commitment to diversity. It’s another thing still to create tone-deaf marketing for those brands, and to expect the public to forgive you for suggesting that dark skin isn’t “normal” because you feature women of colour in your advertising.
As I say, context matters. The latest Dove ad has drawn such intense condemnation because it bears such a striking visual resemblance to the racist advertising pioneered by the founders of Unilever in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Adverts historically showed African men and women being washed with soap, which transformed their skin to white—drawing on centuries of racist ideology that suggested dark skin was ‘unclean’.
Unilever became the world’s largest consumer goods company precisely because of racist and Imperialist ideologies that suggested white people were superior. Its history began with a merger between a British soap maker and a Dutch margarine company—and this seemingly mundane fact can reveal to us the history of global capitalist inequality. In order to expand their company, Unilever needed to establish vast palm oil plantations in Africa to produce enough products to service a global market. Their growth as a company was part and parcel of the process of British colonial expansion.
Adverts that showed black Africans desiring to use Unilever’s soap in order to have white skin didn’t just illustrate the casual racism of British culture around the turn of the twentieth century: these adverts were created to justify Imperialism. If advertisers could show Africans as wanting to buy consumer goods and wishing to have white skin, thus accepting their ‘inferiority’, they could justify colonialism. By portraying European empires as something that would benefit Africans by ‘civilising’ them, the largest companies of the time could hugely increase their profits by setting up vast plantations for raw materials in European-owned colonies.
And Unilever’s profits still depend upon the structures of global inequality that were put in place by Imperialism. Unilever is the single largest end user of palm oil—an industry that causes widespread deforestation and environmental destruction throughout Africa, Asia and South America, and has a devastating impact on communities across the globe. The establishment of oil palm plantations is often promoted as a way of bringing development and prosperity to poor regions. Yet palm oil companies regularly seize land from indigenous populations, and have been linked to major human rights violations.
Last year, Amnesty International and multiple NGOs slammed Unilever for failing to regulate the human rights abuses in its supply chains. The company proudly proclaims that it only sources palm oil that has been certified as ‘sustainable’, yet an investigation showed that the companies supplying Unilever use forced and child labour on their plantations. Workers are paid wages far below what is needed to meet a family’s living needs, are forced to work long hours or else face severe penalties, and are exposed to high levels dangerous chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides. Children as young as eight are forced to carry heavy loads for as long as 12 hours a day, seven days a week. With the plantations destroying the rainforest that local people depend upon, or else taking up land that might have been used to grow food, communities often find that they have no choice but to become plantation workers.
So you might argue that the latest Dove advert isn’t racist. But it comes from a brand with a recent history of similar scandals, owned by a company with a long tradition of racist advertising—which profits elsewhere in the world by telling dark-skinned customers that their skin should be whiter. Unilever is a company that wouldn’t exist without the promotion of racist and colonialist ideologies, whose profits depend to this day upon a system of global inequality that was put in place by Imperialism. I’ll let you be the judge.