Nivea ad targeting African Americans gets creamed

A recently pulled ad by Nivea USA reminds consumers there is still a lot of work to be done to address a lack of diversity in marketing and marketing services.

A recently pulled ad by Nivea USA reminds consumers there is still a lot of work to be done to address a lack of diversity in marketing and marketing services.

After getting a whiff of the PR stink bomb Nivea USA recently set off following the release of its “Re-Civilize” Nivea for Men ad, you could argue the advertising industry, like the PR sector, is still susceptible to allegations that it is overly homogenized.

The ad, which has since been pulled, originally ran in the September issue of Esquire. It shows a well-groomed African-American man getting ready to heave a decapitated head with an Afro and a scruffy beard. The text emblazoned over the model reads: “Re-Civilize Yourself.”  

Part of Nivea for Men's “Look Like You Give a Damn” ad campaign, “Re-Civilize” was roundly condemned via social networks. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported that Facebook users began “posting photos of themselves with Afros on Nivea's wall, saying things such as: ‘I wear my hair natural and I just graduated with my doctorate! So who needs to be re-civilized? Nivea no longer welcomed in my household.' ”

The male grooming brand quickly tried to cauterize its wounds. Nivea USA posted the following on its Facebook page: “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.”

Nivea USA is owned by Beiersdorf and the ad was created by IPG creative agency Draftfcb, who were contrite when contacted by PRWeek: "We share Beiersdorf's sentiments regarding the recent Nivea For Men ad. It was never our intention to offend anyone and for this we are deeply sorry. We are reviewing our internal processes to make sure something like this never happens again."

Despite the mea culpa, the ad betrays a stunning lack of awareness on the part of Nivea USA and begs the question: What was the company thinking when it gave the ad the green light?

“Unfortunately, it's a fairly typical scenario,” said Kim Hunter, president and CEO of Lagrant Communications, an African American-owned and operated PR agency. “I don't subscribe to the notion that ads for African Americans, Native Americans, or Asian Americans must be created by [members of those] groups. But I do expect the people creating the ads to appreciate the nuances and insights of the culture they are targeting.”

Hunter added that creating such a controversial ad may have been a calculated move on the part of Nivea USA. “They're trying to reach a certain demographic,” he said. “They might have wanted to break through the clutter at the expense of ascending the audience they're targeting.”

But, as the flare-up about the Nivea ad demonstrates, trying to push the ad envelope in a social media age presents serious risks for brands.  “When people comment [on social channels] it takes on a different dimension,” Hunter adds.

The ad does no favors for agencies that practice marketing communications, want to build a more diverse labor force, and cultivate new customers. Nevertheless, this could be a teachable moment for both the PR and advertising professions to be more cognizant about the messages they craft and the audiences they covet.

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