For a company that seemingly has a global responsibility to celebrate beauty of all tones, Nivea surely has failed with its recent ads in West Africa.
A social media storm stirred up after Ghanian musician Fuse ODG posted a Nivea Natural Fairness Body Lotion ad recently. The skin cream’s tagline promising “visibly fairer skin” was concerning for many people, NPR reported, especially coming from a company with a troubling history of tone-deaf and racist controversies. The tagline upholds devastatingly wrong beliefs that lighter-colored skin is better than darker skin and that skin color is somehow a measure of beauty.
More problematic is the ad’s showcasing of former Nigerian beauty queen Omowunmi Akinnifesi, who is featured while gazing into space with “a sly smile playing on the sides of her lips.” Akinnifesi’s skin “progressively” lightens as she applies Nivea’s product to her body as if she is performing a magic trick. For real? Did Nivea not think about the pain that had driven dark-skinned women to try bleaching agents?
The commercial, circulating for the last few months after appearing on billboards in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, Nigeria in June, sheds light on the ugliness of colorism. Akinnifesi’s presence reinforces a worldwide prejudice toward dark-skinned women that stems from a vile pathology created by colonialism. But the attempted erasure of darker skin just will not be tolerated.
“The first time I saw the ad, I thought it was problematic,” recalls Ayodeji Rotinwa, a journalist based in Nigeria. “Omowunmi Akinnifesi is not that fair to begin with. But in my opinion, for someone who girls look up to and isn’t too fair or too dark, to then come out and say, ‘fairer is better!’ … people already aspire to be like you.”
No response to the uproar has come from Akinnifesi. But the conversation is heating up on social media and Ghana over the ad that strengthens some false stereotypes about women’s’ skin tones being tied to their overall happiness.
Social media users are calling for a boycott of Nivea products and for the pulling of the ads with the #pullitdownnow hashtag. The outcry comes after the government in Ghana banned creams that contain hydroquinone because of possible links between the bleaching agent and cancer.
Nivea issued a response to the criticisms after it reached a fever pitch.
“We have recently noted concerns on social media by some consumers regarding our NIVEA Natural Fairness Body Lotion communication in Ghana,” the company’s statement reads. “We would like to emphasize that this campaign is in no way meant to demean or glorify any person’s needs or preferences in skin care.”
The ad, which echoes demeaning sentiments expressed by a recent Dove ad in which a black woman morphed into a white woman, reaches into more dangerous territory for alluding to white supremacy.
“Colonialism was an ideological war,” says Yaba Blay, the Dan Blue Endowed Chair in Political Science at North Carolina Central University, Mashable reported. “How do you come to control people’s minds? You control how they see themselves, particularly in relationship to you. White, white, white became the metaphor for all things good.”