How Do Offensive Ads Get Made In the First Place?

There’s a cycle that happens in the advertising world. It goes a little something like this. Company goes to ad agency to create a new ad campaign intended to speak to the African American demographic. Ad agency comes up with something that runs the risk of offending the target audience. Ad gets released into the public anyway. Ad meets predictable outrage, especially online and in social media. Company is forced to publicly apologize and possibly pull the offensive commercial they likely paid big bucks for.

It’s a frustrating, annoying, totally avoidable cycle. And it keeps happening. Popeye’s Chicken. McDonald’s. Summer’s Eve. And now, Nivea. I haven’t even been blogging about this drama, because all of this outrage makes my soul heavy.

In case you aren’t up to date on the scandal du jour, let me fill you in really quick.

The latest Nivea ad was created by Draftfcb. It features the slogan “Re-Civilize Yourself,” and features a handsome, clean cut black man holding a mask of what’s meant to be a “caveman,” as if he’s going to hurl it away from him like a discus or something. It’s part of Nivea’s “Look Like You Give A Damn” campaign, which features super cute model BJ Williams in this particular advertisement. The caveman head has big, shaggy natural hair, what looks to be slightly darker skin, and a beard. Basically it looks like the model took off a Questlove Halloween mask. This ad sends the message, having natural hair = uncivilized.

offensive nivea ad

Look at this epic fail. It’s the kind of thing you’d see on Kiss My Black Ads, right? This will someday be in a textbook of what NOT to do in advertising. I can see it now.

Wouldn’t you think somewhere along the line, someone would have said to themselves and/or their coworkers, “Hey, it occurs to me that this ad could be seen as racist. Especially since we used the phrase “recivilize yourself” only in this ad. People might feel some kinda way about that. Plus, there have been several other recent controversies with ads that were construed as racist recently. Maybe we should play it safe and just use the ad with the white caveman instead, because it’s less potentially offensive. Or the other ad with the three models, that just says “Look Like You Give a Damn.” That’s arresting enough and won’t offend anyone”.

You’d think someone would say that at the ad agency, or at Esquire magazine. Somebody. But nobody did.

The ad got printed in September’s Esquire Magazine, a friend of mine — the very cool Kyle Archer — saw the ad and tweeted a photo of it, sending the link to quite a few of his blogger and vlogger friends on Twitter. Boom went the dynamite. Now Kyle’s fingers are famous — the photo he tweeted even made the news on CNN.

Social media is a powerful thing.

Folks (including myself) tweeted their disappointment with Nivea for having this ad released. Twitter is made for moments like these. Some immediately swore never to use their products again. Some called for an instant boycott. Some started @ replying Rihanna, Nivea’s current spokesperson, like she had something to do with this (guess what? She doesn’t). And then the blog posts started pouring in, expressing varying degrees of outrage and anger. And Facebook had more of its share of angry wall posts — Nivea USA’s Facebook page was absolutely bombarded by offended, about-to-be-former fans.

Consequently, Nivea issued a public apology via Facebook.

“Thank you for caring enough to give us your feedback about the recent “Re-civilized” NIVEA FOR MEN ad. This ad was inappropriate and offensive. It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again. Diversity and equal opportunity are crucial values of our company.”

Now here’s the kicker. According to Clutch Magazine, a black man was the ad wizard who came up with this one. Wait, what?

While I’ve publicly declared that scandals like this make my soul weary and I’m pretty much over blogging about them…I’m still fascinated by and drawn into the cycle of outrage. I reached out to a friend of mine, who has asked only be identified as an “industry insider.” I had to ask — how do these obviously offensive ads keep getting made? Who’s to blame in this case, Nivea or the agency?

I reached out for a quote and my insider explained thusly:

“Normally, but not all cases, the ad agency makes the suggestion of the ads and other creative content. Agencies are in the business of selling creative content like this ad. It’s a very rare occasion that the advertiser is creating or even suggesting creative content. I can’t speak directly to this ad because at this time I don’t have all the details. Contacting advertisers directly does have a huge influence of what they do. Most actually care and I’m sure Nivea cares.

But very often it’s the general market advertising agency who are clueless. The disparity in hiring practices in advertising are dreadful. It is one of the most racist industries in america. And that is widely exacerbated by the very nature of the work they do. They are curators, purveyors and sometimes creators of pop culture. And given that, they constantly make these mistakes in huge ways. Look at Popeye’s Annie the Chicken Queen, Summers Eve talking vaginas and several other racist ad campaigns.”

My insider went on to add, “This really underscores the need for more multicultural agencies actively working in more categories. As the world changes and markets “emerge” and demographics merge, now more than ever, we should see the rise of agencies that accurately represent the human race as a dynamic and diverse entity with wide ranging sensitivities, proclivities and inclinations. Our current 1950′s models are increasing in importance and revenues, while waning in relevance and accuracy.”

Although in this particular case it seems that this ad was concieved by a black man, the dismal state of diversity in the advertising world has directly led to this cycle of offensive advertising. It’s like these people approach ads for a black audience very much like a 90′s comedian talking about race would have. “White people eat a hamburger like this **eats all neat and proper like** and black folks eat a hamburger like this! **cue wild hip hop influenced gestures while eating a hamburger.” And some of the most annoying ads pitched to black audiences come from agencies largely staffed by black people, proving that sometimes a lack of diversity can be damaging there as well. (Ba da ba ba ba, I’m loving this highly profane McDonald’s ad parody BTW).

So what’s the solution? Given this country’s long history of racist stereotyping, and the advertising industry’s reputation for a lack of true diversity, it’s time to truly work together and stop thinking you have to pitch to one demographic in a wildly different way than you pitch to the other. Don’t think in terms of having just one multicultural specialist, or a little multicultural department to craft ads tailored to your target demographic. Instead of having a department that strictly speaks to ethnic issues, make your whole staff truly diverse. Truly multicultural. Create an industry that is representative of society as a whole, where words like “minority” are quickly losing their meaning. And if you’re coming out with an ad meant to speak to a particular race and your now diverse and multicultural staff isn’t sure about it, then run that ad by a focus group. Then use another one just to be sure. Advertising execs, you’re in a position to break the cycle. It starts by opening your ranks, and opening your eyes.

Or you can keep on doing things as you’ve been doing, and the cycle continues. Catch y’all on Twitter, where surely another outrageous and stupid ad meant to target a specific race will be offending us all soon.

But that’s just what I think. What do YOU think? What have your thoughts been about the offensive advertising scandal du jour, bellas?

For other perspectives, check out these posts on Clutch, Necole Bitchie, Forbes, and Ad Age.

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Comments

  1. I saw this another blog yesterday and just shook my head. I can’t even muster up a good comment. Why? SMH

  2. I personally believe that ads like this get made and get published because of the lack of representation. If more people of color worked in higher positions at advertising agencies and media outlets that publish these ads, I think these ads would never come to be. Let’s all try to put a different face to these ads by getting our butts in the bosses chair and running things!

    • Is there anyone out there besides me that thinks this is all a load of pure B.S.

      I watched the backs of my black GI’s and they watched my white one. We didn’t give a sh– about the paranoid and weak arguments that get floated around today.

      Let me make this absolutely clear — I don’t give a damn what color your face is!! Your blood (and mine) is red. When you’re ready to die for me like the brothers who did in Vietnam, maybe I care what you have to say. I don’t think you have a clue about what I’m trying to say.

  3. I was the blogger who was quoted in the CNN article. I mentioned Rihanna not because she has anything to do with the ad but because she is a high-profile celebrity and Nivea spokesperson. Just like Natalie Portman, ambassador for Miss Dior Chérie, spoke out against John Galliano when word of his drunken tirade surfaced I had hoped that the normally outspoken Rihanna would express some indignation at what is an extremely racist advertisement aimed at Black people.

  4. ManiacalMind says:

    What is interesting to me is the utter lack of Black, Hispanic, and Asian voices in Ad Agencies. And it is not like they aren’t there or don’t exist, however the few that work within the agencies are overshadowed. What is most frustrating, is there are even companies like CultureLab (Dallas, TX) which is black owned that specifically works with Ad Agencies on how to create and diversify campaigns to effectively reach minorities. Agencies need to start utilizing the resources internally and externally to avoid misshapes like this again!

    • Oneika Mays says:

      I have to agree- the ad was in bad taste, but I don’t think it’s overt act of racism. I think there are much worse offenses that we see. What really needs to be addressed is how many people of color actively sit at the table when these go to print. And more importantly- what do these folks say? Are they the voice of reason? Or are they content to let such ads run… It’s important to keep these dialogues open as well as making sure we are keeping our eyes on the collective prize.

  5. Thanks, Patrice. Well researched, truthful, eloquent and evocative rendering of what you see in Nivea, Summer’s Eve, etc, etc,…what about Direct TV new Asian-cast slap in the face?? The recommendations you make are, similarly, all truth. With the growing and diversifying complexity of America, ONE voice cannot represent all of the values, mindsets, filters, sensitivities and nuances through which we see and connect with a brand message. Although Nivea hired ONE voice, apparently, their process did not include hearing from more. Yours, in the beauty of truth.
    A real people’s Adgurl,
    & B’Flygurl

  6. I truly believe that when these companies have black executives or members of their think-tanks, they believe that they’re safe somehow. They assume that the person of color would know what will and won’t be offensive to “their own” community. Our problem is with us. WE continue to see ourselves in these negative ways, so we continue to put out this kind of self-hatred.

  7. What gets me is the fact that these companies or sports casters or actors can all get away with the blase and very trite apology with the assurance that it won’t happen again. Meanwhile our people- the largest consumers, continue to support them with our money and our tv viewing time.

  8. The more things change, the more they sound the same! I agree, Bella, people have to start speaking out on the issue, and not allow a company to just put out any old ad.
    While this ad is offensive, is it more offensive than the Uncle Ben ads? How about ‘ol Aunt Jemima on the pancake box? She may no longer have a rag on her head, but auntie and uncle are still feeding the masses, yassuh! Betty Crocker isn’t called “Aunt”, so why is Jemima?

  9. This was precisely what I was wondering when I learned about this story. What was the thought process behind this? How the eff did this get the thumbs up? This definitely helped answer some of those questions. Many Thanks!

  10. Well said. I guess they didn’t have a focus group.

  11. Complete over-reaction.

  12. I don’t think it is offensive. No more than the white guy caveman ad. I think this version predicts what a black caveman would look like. I dont think they were trying to say having a fro in particular is uncivilized. If it had a perm or relaxer would it still be offensive? If clean cut brother had a mini fro would it still be offensive? I do applaud everyone who gave feedback on Niva’s site and definitely for the guy that twitted the ad and got this thing going. I also applaud Niva for posting their apology and pulling the ad. I like Niva and will continue to use it. The men’s hair and body shower in “cool” smells good and so does the woman’s “happiness”…two of my favs.

  13. so sick of this issue! i think the problem is perception; just because you (consumer) perceive something as not fitting for you and your swag (nappy hair, grown in beard, “dirty-back-pack, earthy crunchy look) doesn’t make it WRONG or UNCIVILIZED! it’s just not right for you. but when a major cosmetic company decides what is right and what is wrong aesthetically that’s when we have major problems!

    THANKS AFROBELLA FOR BRINGING THIS TO OUR ATTENTION!

  14. I debated whether or not to respond to this, but decided that I should. Before I begin, I would like to say this is my personal opinion based on my life/professional experience.

    I’m a black woman and have worked in the advertising industry for 10+ years. I have worked on campaigns for several top name packaged good brands (Dove, Vaseline, Bounty Paper Towels, Huggies Diapers, etc) and I’m currently assigned to the account of a major financial services brand. I say all that to prove that I have a lot of knowledge about advertising/marketing and consider myself an expert.

    A couple of things I’d like to point out in terms of how things work:

    1 – Esquire is in no ways at fault here. They sold advertising space to the media agency representing Nivea and then the creative agency trafficked (e.g. emailed) the aforementioned advertising to the production department at Esquire. The ad was probably received late, which meant the production team had to rush to make sure the ad was inserted into the magazine layout and then sent it to the printer. I doubt they even realized what the ad was for, let alone that it would be offensive.

    2 – The AD AGENCY develops creative, the brand does not. Nivea’s only job in this process is to tell the agency what they want to achieve (eg sales), who they want to market to (in this case I’m assuming Men 25-54 with no indication of race) and when they want the campaign to launch. The ad agency comes up with the concept, tagline, image ideas, photography, copy, etc. HOWEVER, at the end of the day Nivea is the one who says “ok, go to print” or “we don’t like it, start over.” In this case, they said the former.

    Personally, I would not refer to this ad as racist. Racially insensitive? Yes. Stereotypical? Perhaps. But, definitely not racist. Why? Because having reviewed all of the facts AND the other ads in the campaign that feature white men in the exact same manner, I am certain the intent of the creative team was not to insinuate that a black man having natural hair is “uncivilized.” In the creative brainstorm, I’m sure the conversation went like this:

    Ad Man #1: How do we get men to care about buying “grooming” products?
    Ad Man #2: Yeah, I mean I just roll out of bed and throw on whatever doesn’t smell too bad. I didn’t even run a comb through my hair today.
    Ad Man #3: Hell, I haven’t shaved in a week and I don’t even give a damn.
    Ad Man #1: Eureka! We’ll tell men to give a damn about how they look and use this stuff.
    *high fives all around the room*

    I don’t think they even considered the possibility of fallout because there was no intention to show that “natural hair is bad” just that men in general should give a damn about their appearance. How many of us have seen a brotha and thought “he doesn’t like he knows what soap is”? You know you think it every time you see a Lil Wayne video.

    Could this whole issue have been avoided? Perhaps. Showing the campaign to a focus group (or several) for their opinion on the ad could potentially have alerted them to the fact that our people might find it offensive and let them know that they should have make some changes, particularly with the copy. Then again, the people in the focus group could also not find it offensive and then we’d be back at square one. It’s also important to note that in the shit economy that we have right now, advertising budgets are often the first to get cut. Lower budgets mean cutbacks in the production process or layoffs. I’m pretty sure they’d rather skip focus group sessions in favor of maintaining levels of staff.

    Would a multicultural agency have done a better job? Perhaps. But this is a general market campaign that just happens to have a diverse cast so I understand why they would use their general agency (and their previous campaigns have featured us in a respectful manner sometimes with natural hair.) Additionally, using a multicultural agency doesn’t mean we’ll never see an offensive or racially insensitive ad. McDonald’s is a prime example and our agencies wrote the “just use Drake/Rihanna/Beyonce/black celeb of the moment” and “make the commercial look like a music video” rules of advertising to black folks.

    There’s definitely a serious lack of diversity in the advertising industry, predominantly within creative/art direction departments. I can count on one hand the number of black people in upper management roles within the advertising-related departments of my agency (not counting finance, payroll, HR.) I’m sure that if we decided to create a black employees support group, we could all fit into one conference room … a medium sized one. There are many, many factors that drive this problem:

    - lack of industry awareness (advertising is way down on the list of jobs promoted to our kids, following lawyer, doctor, NBA star)
    - nepotism (a job is easy when you’re related to the creative director)
    - discrimination (yes it does exist)

    And don’t think it stops with color … there are very few women in upper management as well and far fewer women in creative positions. That Tampax commercial about managing your monthly gift from mother nature? I wouldn’t be surprised if the creative team was majority men (or all men.)

    So what’s the solution to preventing the creation of offensive/sexist ads? I don’t know if we’ll ever truly be devoid of ads that someone finds offensive, but there are things the industry can do better:

    - Outreach by agencies to recruit more people of color (and women), particularly within creative positions.
    - Use of social media (a truly untapped resource in my opinion) to test advertising in order to avoid these issues and to measure effectiveness.
    - Adequate training for creative professionals including lessons in racial sensitivity and interpretation (they aren’t as clued in to our culture as you may think.)

    Ok, I’m done for now. Thanks for reading.

    Disclaimer: These are MY PERSONAL OPINIONS and DO NOT REFLECT THOSE OF THE AGENCY I WORK FOR OR MY CURRENT CLIENT (just in case someone I work with happens across this comment)

    • I appreciate your insight as a professional. And I agreet that the ad was not racist. It was definitely racially insensitive. Hopefully as a result, these ad companies will put more research into their work.

    • @njones and @afrobella: Thank you for your insight. It is definitely useful and eye-opening. Before talking with someone in marketing, I was not really aware how ads get created and marketed in the first place. Your comment only confirms and adds on to what he said. I mention this because 1) my blog is dedicated to advertisements and commercials with natural hair, and I’m trying to familiarize myself with ad generation from start to finish and 2) I don’t know that people outside of the industry are really aware of how things work, as you put it.

  15. Hey everone! Do you like make up and beauty? Check out our blog: theglamourgirls1.blogspot.com

  16. Excellent article! So true.

  17. I didn’t find the ad offensive at all. The use of the word “civilized” in this instance stands in the place of “clean cut”, which is still what is acceptable in places like corporate America. If it were a white man holding a head with long hair and a beard the message would be the same.

  18. If you are offended by an advert then we have to hit them in their wallet – don’t buy the product and voice your feelings to the company and explain why you are no longer buying the product.

  19. Nivea’s ad is not just racist, it is barbaric. I don’t care if it was a space alien throwing a decapitated head from the top of a parking garage, this image is brutal in the extreme. Those people who conceived this ad and those people who signed off on its production need to be separated from the rest of society and watched carefully for mental illness. I would not let them near the people I love. I would not stand next to them in a queue for the next bathroom stall. And the model who posed for this photo shoot needed to grow a spine and stand against this appallingly offensive RACIST, BARBARIC, DISGUSTING image. We all must stand up.

  20. Candy Caines says:

    While I agree there needs to be more diversity in ad agencies, I also think the top down nature of corporate culture is also a problem. No one wants to make waves and be the person to stand up and say something people won’t like. Black people in particular are always being accused of “playing the race card” whenever they mention something offensive, and all people fear being labeled too politically correct. I can already see someone mentioning that the ad might be offensive and being told to get a sense of humor, stop looking for things to be offended by, why can’t they take a joke, etc. etc.

  21. Would the model’s Agent or Representative as well as the model have any say about the slant of the advertisement? Or they could have at least protested about it. I think they also need to take some responsibility – sure you want to earn a fee but one should also be principled.

  22. I do not see anything wrong with the ad. I do not perceive the head as “natural” but unkept and unruly. There is a difference between natural hair and unkept hair. But as another committer mentioned, perception is in the eye of the beholder, and if offended, hit the company with your lack of dollars.

  23. I didn’t think the ad was done in good taste

    Chiffon, Lace and Leather Fashion Blog

  24. The ad was definitely in poor taste and not thought right. Just because time shave changed does not mean people will not be offended. What is interesting is that black people took part in making the advert. With the natural African hair movement in full swing soon it will become as much the norm as a chemical relaxer. It is so much easier to do better than this.

    A bit of thought would not hurt as you would not advertise pork as halal or kosher – you jut wouldnt do it.

    Oh the advert would have been ok if the Afro head was groomed. Most Afro’s are well groomed and in some religions and cultures that look is what is acceptable.

  25. I think it’s obvious that a lot of companies that are trying to target black markets with their advertising are not consulting people who understand the black market enough to know that these types of ads would be offensive.

  26. Black people are offended by this ad, but they watch Basketball Wives and flock to see Madea. I can’t think of anything more offensive than the black women on BW. It’s a caveman. Big deal. And for the record, the buster did need a shave. Would you go out with him? He looks like the homeless man I gave $2 to the other day. Jeez!

  27. Wow! I guess the ad agency doesn’t care about the effect it might have on our black youth’s. Ads like these can make their young minds think they are ugly if they went natural.

    As a person who blogs about personal growth I find this very inconsiderate. I wonder how soon it was pulled after being aired? SMH

  28. I wonder if they PURPOSELY publish controversial, racist ads just to get the extra attention? (more bang for the buck). As we all know with some misbehaved, neglected children, even negative attention is still attention!

  29. Mszariyah says:

    •To those that advertise ignorance… Just a note with an answer wrapped in it: I love the skin I’m in. It is not a disease, ailment, or malfunction that must be dealt with or re-civilized. It is not a hand I was dealt, it is the hand of my Wonderful Creator at work. It is the skin of an articulate, educated, and compassionate woman of color that prefers to be no other color. If given the choice; after looking at my life my struggles and the somewhat harsh complexity of my heritage, as if lives were a Macy’s catalog… I would still choose to be… “Black Like Me”. An Enigma I am, Yes, so if you don’t get what hurts me that’s your business, but do not disrespect my pain with your ignorance.

  30. If you think it’s bad in the States, come to Japan!!

  31. Bella, I am somewhat offended – but not surprised – and likewise I am tired of this disrespectful cycle you describe. We are offended and we react and then we get the proverbial apology.

    But I might add we have much bigger fish to fry.

    If I would have my druthers, we would stop being so reactive and become a more proactive – wealth building – people.

    The day we economically mobilize our dollars will be the day we will have the clout to not be offended in said fashion.

    harveysglobalpolitics.blogspot.com

  32. Bella, thank you for pointing out the commonly overlooked fact that this happens ALL THE TIME. I listened to another commentary on this very ad a few weeks ago (by The Young Turks) and their analysis was far too objective. At this point, apologizing after the fact is not enough. Ad agencies and their clients need to draw the line and understand that for every campaign that crosses it, they lose another thousand (or million) customers.

    Oh well, I never liked Nivea anyway.

  33. It was really neat, and needed post. Something really wrong is seems to be going on in the marketing industry. This post explains it really well.

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