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#PRFAIL: Lack of Sensitivity = Huge Liability for Nivea

Nivea Fotolia

Knowing and being respectful of your public is priority one in PR and advertising, but skincare company Nivea has provided repeated case studies in how to fail at this miserably. Not only fail but appear to promote outright racist ideas – 2017 for Nivea was marked by a series of highly questionable advertising decisions that left their target publics (and others around the world) outraged.

In a deodorant ad targeted at Middle Eastern consumers, the company showed an image of a woman in a white dress, with her back to the viewer displaying long, brown hair, with the slogan, “White Is Purity.” People took to Twitter and Facebook to lambast the ad’s implications, but even worse were those who celebrated them. The comment thread on the ad’s Facebook posting attracted numerous white supremacists making statements such as: “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.”1

The posting remained on Nivea’s Facebook for an entire weekend before someone from the company finally responded to the debacle by taking it down. Oops!

Nivea also created a whole “Natural Fairness” line aimed at the Asian and African markets, with slogans such as “For Visibly Fairer Skin,” displayed on a billboard in Ghana. Media messaging around attaining lighter skin for those in dark-skinned cultures is ubiquitous, and Asian and African consumers spend billions of dollars on toxic skin-lightening products. Needless to say, the advertisements were controversial.2

Nivea’s response to criticism over its tone-deaf, biased campaign was, once again, nothing to write home about. They issued a statement saying that the campaign “is in no way meant to demean or glorify any person’s needs or preferences in skin care.” What?! Supposedly the skincare line’s “natural ingredients and UV filters” were supposed to “[reduce] the sun-induced production of melanin.” The company made no admission at all of having caused offense, or of any need to rethink its brand strategy.3

Way back in 2011, the company had published a Nivea for Men ad showing a clean-shaven African-American man holding a head with an Afro (representing his former, unshaven self), declaring: “Re-Civilize Yourself.”4

No commentary necessary!

The company has either never learned, or there are some bad actors, or both. But this is no way to conduct business. Creating public trust and goodwill means affirming and embracing diversity, and ensuring that messaging is sensitive. And in the case of a gaffe, it means owning up to it and correcting the causes 100%.

I admit, in this day and age people are too sensitive on being “politically correct.” But with the amount of attention on diversity right now—would you be so bold as to create a campaign like Nivea without considering what the ramifications might be?  Curious—your feedback is interesting to me!

1) Wang, Amy B. “Nivea’s ‘White Is Purity’ Ad Campaign Didn’t End Well.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Apr. 2017, washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2017/04/05/niveas-white-is-purity-ad-campaign-didnt-end-well/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ffb571ca223f.

2) Chutel, Lynsey. “Nivea Wants Africans to ‘Visibly Lighten’ Their Skin in Another of Its Racially Controversial Ads.” Quartz, Quartz, 19 Oct. 2017, qz.com/africa/1106557/nivea-accused-of-racism-with-fair-skin-advertising-campaign-in-africa/.

3) Ibid.

4) Wang, Amy B. “Nivea’s ‘White Is Purity’ Ad Campaign Didn’t End Well.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Apr. 2017, washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2017/04/05/niveas-white-is-purity-ad-campaign-didnt-end-well/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ffb571ca223f.


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