How Dove Can Get REAL In 7 Not So Easy Steps

When I was at my very first full-time advertising agency job, I stopped a “Blaxploitation” campaign idea mid-brainstorm. The brainstorm was related to a multi-million dollar account that the agency had just won. In 2004, I was 24 and the most junior person in the room. My team was predominately White and male. I was the only Black person in the room. I was supposed to be there to take notes, but I had to speak up. I said, “We can’t do Blaxploitation anything; we can’t brainstorm about it; we can’t even think about it.” The president of the agency looked me in the eye and casually said, “Why not?” I was fuming inside and scared as hell. But, I calmly reminded him that our client had recently hired a new diversity and inclusion lead and launched a major internal program. If we presented “Blaxploitation” to the client, in any context, we’d be fired. The good news is, they listened. The sad thing is that the fall out hadn’t occurred to them. The worse thing is, to be junior, Black, a woman and heard in that space is rare. So, when Dove pulled its 3-second GIF on its Facebook page that featured a Black woman turning into a white woman turning into an Asian woman because it “missed the mark,” I was dumbfounded. I wondered out loud, how did that get approved in 2017 given the racist history of soap advertising in the U.S. and abroad. Then, I remembered my own hesitation to speak out for fear of being silenced or even retaliation. Yes, the advertising industry needs more people of color at every level. However, simply having diverse people in place doesn’t mean we’ve actually nailed the problem. The agency culture has to be one where the contrarian is empowered to speak.

According to Lola Ogunyemi, the Black woman featured in the Dove gif that was pulled last Friday, the intention was to use the models’ differences to highlight the fact that all skin deserves gentleness. While the sentiment is sweet, it’s a bit “all lives matter,” because it doesn’t actually get at the problem that would even make a celebration of difference in a beauty ad necessary. Simply having diverse people in place doesn’t address the racist elephant in the room.

Since Dove is all about “The Campaign For Real Beauty,” this brand is actually in a good position to get this right. But first, you have to get REAL with your team.

1. Stop cheering from the stands and get in the game.

Do you reside, worship, engage in entertainment, and work with people whom primarily look and/or think like you? If you’re not mixing it up in your personal life, you probably don’t have much experience doing it at work. It’s time to disrupt your life. Put yourself in situations where you’re the minority. Journal your concerns before during and after these experiences and pick at least one that you’ll commit to keeping up.

2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Use your journal as a reference for feelings like “uncertainty,” and “isolation.” Further, “I didn’t know” or “I was not unaware” is not an excuse in the age of Google. The history of colonialism, sexism, racial hierarchy, colorism, intersectionality and how they relate to legal precedent are available to all.

Public intellectuals who tackle issues on race and social justice might also be a good starting point. It is not the job of the historically marginalized person on your team to teach you, but everyone should participate. White supremacist attitudes are not reserved for whites only. White supremacy can only advance with the support of non-white allies.

3. Understand the good, the bad and the ugly history of advertising in your category

Reflect on the relationship between the history you’ve discovered with your team and the history of advertising in your category. Align your historical timeline with ads from that time period. Take a step back, note the relationships and reflect on them. Is your present campaign a bold step into the future, a remix of the past, or somewhere moderately in the middle? Does the answer reflect who your brand wants to be? Does the answer reflect who your team wants to be? Does the answer reflect who you want to be?

4. Own the country’s blind spot on race as your own

Acknowledge the distance between what you knew and what you didn’t know. Own it. You cannot innovate or push your campaign forward as a team if you can’t relate what you’ve learned to your biases or uninformed assumptions.

5. Understand the relationship between the your team culture and your team’s blind spot on race and gender.

Assess your team culture. Is there room for dissent? Is there a common, respected structure for critiquing ideas? If not, create it. Be sure to include any new checkpoints as they relate to race, gender and how they intersect. You will likely need some outside support from diverse suppliers.

6. Once you’ve had your own team reckoning, consider how your current campaign can now take the lead and move the conversation forward.

It’s time for your campaign to get real. Given your fresh understanding of history and its relationship to your campaign, what do you now need to say and whom (influencers, scholars, activists) do you need to include and amplify to guide challenging, topical conversation?

7. Proceed with campaign ideas sure to be provocative, relevant, and on strategy.

Provocative, relevant, strategic…the creative trifecta! Your goal is to invite more people into the brand, have them stay a while, and invite friends. But getting real means that you can’t be for everybody. Your brand needs to be the multifaceted relatable friend who supports you when you need it, but isn’t afraid to tell you the truth.

I’ve got 15 years experience working in and with advertising agencies. Additionally, I teach graduate students in the Integrated Marketing Communications Program at NYU. I tell my White students that speaking up about gender and race gaffes in their team’s work will likely be hard. But, they can’t let themselves off the hook just because the actor goes along with it or because nobody else said anything. We have to be brave. We can push for more diverse teams, but we also need agency and brand cultures that support the constructive contrarian. They push the work. They make ideas better. And that’s what we’re in this for anyway.

Dr. Amber Chenevert received her PhD in Advertising in 2013 and conducts research in the area of user experience research, customer journey and marketplace diversity. She is a professor in the Integrated Marketing Communications Program at NYU. Dr. Chenevert has 15 years advertising agency and consulting experience. She is the Founder and UX Research Strategy lead at Grounded Strategy, LLC (

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