I'm glad Dave Trott, ad-man with his name on many ad agency doors, and many ad books (Creative Mischief is one, Predatory Thinking another, both excellent reads) decided to throw his hat in the ring and discuss the strange backlash against Emma Watson's appearance in a Lancome Blanc Expert Melanolyser ad.
If you're unfamiliar with the mysterious naming systems of beauty products, that means it's a 'skin lightener'. I wanted to write about it when the backlash began, but literally just threw my hands in the air and made an exasperated sigh before rolling my eyes and getting on with my day instead. Headlines like "Emma Watson is under fire for appearing in Lancome ads for 'skin whitening' cream in 2013" - "Emma Watsons fans accuse her of promoting skin lightening" - "Emma Watson Accused Of Promoting Skin Lightening". Eventually she had to respond: "Emma Watson responds to criticism over 'skin whitening' advert".
Dave Trott writes in "It's not black and white" that in an ad agency in London people were refusing to work on a skin whitening brief, because they assumed it was racist:
Years ago my wife had a similar experience.
She’s an art director and she was working at an agency that had a chance to pitch for a cosmetics account.
One of their products was a skin-lightening cream.
Many of the people at that agency refused to work on the pitch.
They also saw skin-lightening cream as inherently racist.
My wife thought they’d got it wrong.
She’s Chinese, from Singapore.
Asian people like her traditionally use skin-lightening cream to disguise blemishes.
They don’t grab handfuls of cream and rub it all over their entire body to pretend to be white.
As she said “No one wants to change their race, we just want to cover up bites and bumps.”
Now, I'm not from anywhere in Asia where these creams are popular but as you can see by my appearance I am quite pale. I lather on 55SPF daily and hide under large hats from the sun. If I don't, freckle-bomb, and while that was cute when I was a kid I found it annoying as I grew older. The default "pale" foundations always looked like a fake tan on me, and I mixed baby powder with powder to match my skin. I use skin whitening creams. When I traveled in Japan I stocked up on what I thought was superior versions, but soon found out they're all pretty much the same all over the world. The creams do not make me paler. The creams help me control freckles and dark spots so I have an even skin tone. They can't erase a tan or change my actual skin tone, which is already at level ten extra pale. To make a huge deal out those creams makes as much logical sense as protesting self-tanning lotions. The ones I use on my equally pale legs so I don't look like a vampire freak in summer skirts. The fact that people were protesting the "racist" cream Emma's face was associated with and not the atrocious photoshopping of said beautiful young face just made me so tired of it all.
Dave Trott recalls another ad that was accused of racism. It was this ad from 1988.
The talented Rocking Sikh was accused of making fun of "his people" by the press. He did not see it that way, and Dave Trott has his his full retort.
What will get people riled up is the only thing that's predictable these days, it's a travel ad with Haka, it's little girls in GAP ads leaning on each other in the 'wrong' colour combination way, it's "White Hipster vs indigenous Mexicans" in Coke ads. Be careful adding anything that's too white, not white, or varying shades of anything to any ad, as the world seems to have lost the ability to see nuances and context and products for what they actually are.