Hey Marketers, Give Me a Call Before You Pull a Nivea

Announcing the 'You Probably Don't Want to Do That' Practice

By Published on .

Apologies in advance, but what follows amounts to an ad -- an ad for a business that should not exist:

I refer to the You Probably Don't Want to Do That industry -- the practice of protecting advertisers from incalculable damage to their brands because management is too a) buried in the creative bunker; b) buffaloed by their agencies; and/or c) dense to see the catastrophe gathering just above them. A nice part of my livelihood resides there, a fact that is happy for me but otherwise simply pitiful.

The latest evidence: Nivea, and a perfectly innocent print ad by DraftFCB that nonetheless should have never, ever, ever seen the light of day.

The controversy blew up over Nivea's "Give a damn" campaign, which implores men to groom themselves the way they used to up till the Lyndon Johnson administration -- you know, when Brylcreem was a leading national advertiser. The premise is that casual-and-comfortable has gotten out of hand, and that the solution is a bunch of product. A little dab'll do you.

The first two ads feature exceedingly kempt models who have dangling in their right hands the faces/scalps of their recently unkempt selves. It's a little disturbingly Hannibal Lecter-ish, but that is not the source of the controversy. In one ad, the model is evidently in Vegas, grasping what looks like the head of the Geico caveman. The headline: "SIN CITY ISN'T AN EXCUSE TO LOOK LIKE HELL." But because this is 2011, and advertisers are unfailing diverse in the casting, the other ad has a black model, and his old countenance features a scraggly afro and goatee. That headline: "RE-CIVILIZE YOURSELF."

Seriously? Re-civilize yourself?

It took about five minutes for the internet to go batshit. The accusations went flying, more or less typified by the charge that Nivea was "unapologetically racist." Pressure was put on Nivea spokeswoman Rihanna to sever ties with the company. Nivea parent Beiersdorf AG was at pains to prostrate itself in shame:

"This ad was inappropriate and offensive," it declared, "and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again."

Now let's look at the facts. The ad is not "unapologetically racist." The campaign is about the difference between looking messy and looking sharp, and was merely trying to be ethnically diverse. Contrary to the assertion of some angry commenters, the afro that is discarded is traded in not for un-"natural" hair, but simply for a short, neat cut. "It was never our intention to offend anyone," Nivea says, and truer words have never been press released.

All of which matters not one little bit. We live in the world. The world is full of very bad memories and ongoing slights and lingering hatreds and ever-present tensions and a whole lexicon of loaded language sure to instantaneously trigger the most malignant of associations. When you invoke "civilized" in connection with a black model, you cannot help but summon its opposite. When a group has been abused, and enslaved, for centuries by explicitly racist presumptions of savagery and even sub-humanity, the word "re-civilize" is at the very least a sharp poke in the eye.

That should have been obvious to everyone at DraftFCB, and surely everyone at Nivea, who are supposed to be stewards not only of the brand but the Beiersdorf shareholders' investments. There are only two possibilities. One is that everybody on guard duty was sound asleep, which itself is a court-martial offense. The other is that they are all so wonderfully colorblind and tra-la-la pleased with their transcendent goodness that they couldn't see beyond the ad's actual innocence to the inevitable reaction in the aforementioned outside Real World. Which is naivete so gargantuan as to constitute malpractice.

But not much in the way of surprise. Year after year, the misses keep on coming. There was the Reebok Pump ad, which deemed it hilarious to show a bungee jumper plummet to his death over Puget Sound. There was the Nintendo spot that told kids to defy their parents because life is meaningless. There was the ForEyes Optical ad combining a social message decrying homelessness with a two-pair-for-one price promotion. Similarly, there was Groupon's jaw-dropping Super Bowl commercial, which used the oppression of the Tibetan people as a peg to advertise half-price curry and other fabulous dining deals.

Now that 's how to amass an ad hoc group of the highly motivated. Try Googling the terms "offensive" plus "ad" plus "boycott." Pack a lunch. You'll be there a while.

As I sit in my office, I look over at my display case of stupid PR crap sent to me over the years, and there, resting on top, is my prized piece of swag: a yellow, 1:18 scale model Hummer, decaled on the side with the logo Just for Feet. It was sent to me in January 1999 along with a copy of the erstwhile athletic-shoe retailer's forthcoming Super Bowl ad. That, perhaps you recall, featured a barefoot Kenyan runner being tracked across the veldt by a military vehicle full of white mercenaries. They stalk the runner, drug him into unconsciousness and put Just for Feet sneakers on him.

Har dee har har. For only the second time in what was at that point 14 years of ad-reviewing, I phoned the agency and warned them not to run the ad, on the grounds of racism, imperialism and arrogant disdain of centuries of Kenyan culture. The agency's response: "But we feel it is humorous."

On the Monday after the 1999 Super Bowl, nobody at the agency or the client was in very good humor. Despite an immediate apology, Just for Feet was overwhelmed by ill will. It wound up suing the agency for gross incompetence, and soon was driven -- by a pretty yellow Humvee, you might say -- out of business forever.

Probably every brand manager on earth should keep the yellow toy displayed, too, as a reminder of the wages of obliviousness. Evidently Nivea's did not.

Me, I should be delighted. My daughter will go to college because there is a market for identifying hidden-in-plain-view disaster. We appreciate the magnanimity of your industry, but that this should be a business for me or anyone else is not just pitiful. It is ridiculous.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
Most Popular
In this article: