Badvertising: Nivea’s Copy Fail

Nivea's racist ad campaign highlights exactly why marketers need to examine their biases and stay in touch with current events.

nivea ad

Here in Manhattan, the past weeks have seen massive demonstrations centered on the lack of retribution for the tragic killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. At MarketSmiths, we join the mourners—for the victims, the families, our broken system.

We also know how deeply rooted racial indignation is in our culture—and have seen how the quickly the dialogue can turn from neutral to outcry. And so we unveil this: our most somber installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising yet. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

Nivea’s RE-CIVILIZE YOURSELF Ad Controversy

Back in 2011, Nivea skincare ran a popular commercial campaign called “Look Like You Give A Damn.” The focus was to get guys to clean up their act: tame that ragged beard and unruly haircut. This filtered into two print ads that showed well-groomed, clean-cut men (one guy white, one guy black) both holding decapitated heads representing their old, scruffy selves, pre-Nivea. Slightly weird, but okay.

The problem was, one ad looked like this:

And the other one looked like this:

Both “before” heads look like cavemen, right? What’s the beef?

Racism, cried the public. Why does the black model’s decapitated head sport a Malcolm X beard, a scraggly ‘fro, a pissed-off expression and the words “Re-civilize Yourself”? Why is it that the ad featuring the white guy doesn’t mention anything about “being civilized,” instead suggesting a dapper dude emerging from an all-night rager…or Vegas.

Did the campaign suggest a civility gap? Many thought so, and loud and clear.

The camera angles didn’t help. The black model posed as classical athlete, like Discobolus, set to throw a discus—er, human head—at the ancient Olympics. The white guy resembles a lit, lauded statue, like Michelangelo’s David contemplating his upcoming bout with Goliath (who, you may recall, was beaten and decapitated by David). Did Nivea knowingly take the risk of playing into racial stereotypes? It didn’t matter to the protestors that Cliff Carson, branding lead for Nivea at PMK-BNC (a New York based agency), is black, too.

Anger rose. Twitter exploded. Public outrage over the ads was so fierce and immediate that Nivea quickly pulled both ads and apologized for their insensitivity.

The massive two-day NYC demonstration about Eric Garner is clear proof that there’s no excuse for skipping a cultural checkpoint. Of course, we copywriters can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the art director had simply swapped the ad copy. But we also know that as a society, we’re too sensitive to risk accidental offense to either side. Shame on you, Nivea, for not considering all sides.

Jim Yoakum

Jim Yoakum

Jim recalls a priceless piece of advice that an English teacher once gave him. Throwing a dictionary onto his desk he said, “All of the words are in there, Yoakum, just put them in the right order.” Putting the right words in the right order has been Jim’s goal ever since, and he has honed his skills over the years to include award-winning copywriting, the scripting of three produced movies, the authoring of numerous novels and non-fiction books—and even a stint as writing partners with the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame. He is also US Curator of Chapman’s archives. To make himself even more insufferable, Jim has also produced comedy CDs and DVDs. While Jim does not lament his misspent youth, playing drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he does however wish he had back all of those brain cells that he ruthlessly killed.

More from MarketSmiths

Optimistic copywriting can be highly effective.

Looking On the Bright Side: Optimistic Copywriting

Copywriter writing on paper

3 Things These Copywriters Learned from Being Mistaken for Copyright Lawyers (Repeatedly!)

Hands typing on a laptop

A Foolproof Guide to Hiring an Effective Copywriter…the First Time Around

Flawless B2C lifestyle beauty products copywriting

Why I Love When Copy Clients Hate My Work

Inc 5000 content agency

M/WBE certified enterprise.

Design by WorstOfAllDesign. Digital Strategy by MadPipe. Photography by Chellise Michael.