By now we’ve all heard about the daily dose of WTF?! that was delivered to us courtesy of Nivea’s offensive, insensitive and racist ad in the September 2011 issue of Esquire magazine.
The ad was for the Nivea for Men Face Body Shave. It depicts a clean-cut Black man throwing away a mask of his goatee-wearing, natural hair-rocking self with the words “Re-civilize yourself” scrawled across the image. “Look like you give a damn,” Nivea instructs consumers.
Within days, and after CNN reported on the offensive ad, Nivea released this lame non-apology:
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.
That’s not an apology, that’s juvenile and insincere backpedalling.
When I first saw the Nivea for Men ad I had a visceral, knee-jerk reaction. I experienced it with instant anger (and tweeted and Tumblred that anger). But not everyone saw it the way I did, and I was forced to explain my thought process. What about the ad was offensive? How is it racist? So, I’m going to try to look at the ad critically, rather than experiencing it psychologically and emotionally.
The word “civilize” has deeply ingrained negative connotations for people of colour that are buried just below the surface of our collective consciousness and body memory. The idea of “civilization” encompasses the clean and unclean, the pure and impure, and how that has been applied to darker and lighter complexions. The ad taps into a long history of colonialism, post-colonialism, domination, subjugation, denigration, violence and the persistent attempts at the erasure of self that continues today. Visions of residential schools, missionaries and the amputation of family names and histories instinctively rush into my mind.
The brother throwing off the bearded and natural hair-wearing mask represents that which we should move away from, while the Nivea man dictates the ideal. The natural man has a darker complexion than the Nivea man, tapping into notions of shadeism that affect people of colour on a daily basis. Beautifully coded and intelligently subversive, the ad strategically combines text and imagery to reinforce a powerful and powerfully appalling message. Dictating standards and notions of beauty, acceptability and civility using a Eurocentric measuring stick, it screams, “Don’t be who you are. Be who we want you to be. This is the only route to respectability. Resistance is futile.”
This ad crosses the line of acceptability into a racialized zone and brings the viewer into a space where dangerous notions of beauty, race and civility intersect with marketability. Nobody from anywhere within the line of production of this ad—from conception, to staging, to photography, to final print—voiced any concern for its violent, effacing message targeted toward Black males. I’m glad the public outcry was so loud, but to be honest, none of this is shocking or surprising to me at all.
This post is part of the Ethnic Aisle, a blog about issues of race, ethnicity and culture in the GTA.