Marketing Crisis Case Study: Nivea’s Racist Advertisement

nivea adWhen marketing your product or service, it’s critical to keep in mind the importance of compassion and sensitivity, and apply these concepts to every demographic you target. Unfortunately, a few years ago Nivea, the worldwide skin and body care company, launched an ad emblazoned with the slogan “Re-Civilize Yourself” in 2011.

What Went Wrong

The “Re-Civilize Yourself” ad was coupled with another one, featuring a white model, with the inscription “Sin City Isn’t an Excuse to Look Like Hell.” Both fell under the broader campaign “Look Like You Give a Damn,” and both featured very well groomed, clean-shaven men hurling away a mask of their respective previously un-groomed faces.

The problem, however, is that the “Re-Civilize Yourself” ad featured a well-dressed neatly trimmed Black man tossing away a head that sported an afro and beard, essentially getting rid of an old identity or appearance that was “uncivilized.” A Good article definitively read the ad as racist, saying that the ad featuring a Black man was the only one in the campaign that mentioned “civilizing” anything.

Additionally, the critics at Good went on to say that most people who happened upon the ad would probably find it devoid of its context, and see only the image of a stereotype of Black people – one where a Black man is trying to fit into a white world and is intentionally trying to lose his former self.

The Reception

While the writers behind Good conclusively believed the ad was racist, other responses were a little more open-ended. The Huffington Post launched a poll soliciting answers. As it stands, almost two years after the ad ran, almost 53% of responders believed the ad was racist, while just over 47% thought that the coupling of the text with the image was simply an unfortunate coincidence. So while the reception on the Huffington Post was split, more responders believed the ad was offensive – probably more responders than Nivea intended.

Nivea’s Response – A Lesson Learned

As a result of the negative reception to the ad campaign, Nivea pulled the ad. They issued a formal apology on the company Facebook page, stating that it was never their intention to offend anyone, that the ad was inappropriate and offensive, and that it would never be used again.

Nivea’s apology was a smart move on the part of the company. Because many people were hurt and offended by the ad campaign, Nivea sought to rectify the problem. This is the takeaway: ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the ad was “inherently racist” or “simple coincidence” – what matters is that a lot of people were hurt when the ad campaign was released, and the company pulled the ad and apologized, which was the correct course of action.

What lessons can businesses learn from how Nivea handled their ad crisis? Do you think they handled it well?

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Tree is a somewhat nomadic graduate student pursuing an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Drew University. A self-identified “diplobrat,” she spent over 16 years living as an expat in countries like Guatemala, Bolivia, and Tanzania. Tree graduated from Smith College in 2012 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, a minor in Studio Art, and a concentration in Landscape Studies. In between writing poetry for school and content for CEM, she dabbles in goat herding and freelancing. Other interests include reading, watercolor painting, gardening, and traveling.

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