Could Dove’s contentious Facebook ad have been a cynical yet finely judged piece of PR? It's hard to believe otherwise.
Getting it so wrong might just have been so right, part of a deliberately disruptive campaign policy that goes back years.
How else could Dove go viral in such a managed way?
Beady-eyed Piers Morgan was quick to smell a rat in the company’s marketing mechanics on Good Morning Britain. He questioned whether Dove had deliberately launched the campaign for publicity.
Munroe Bergdorf, the first transgender woman to appear in a L’Oréal Paris UK campaign, also spotted something a little fishy. She asked: “Why are they getting it wrong so many times? It makes you think they are doing it on purpose.”
Then there was the Dove apology: “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence it caused.”
Pepsi also apologised for “missing the mark” over its Kendall Jenner ad earlier this year. Far from damaging the company, Pepsi profits were up that quarter.
In June, USA Today reported: “PepsiCo sweetens profits despite Kendall Jenner ad debacle.” Maybe revenues were up because of the debacle.
Fortune Magazine recently reported that a lot of people liked the "highly offensive" Kendall Jenner ad. According to The Morning Consult survey, about 44% had a more favourable view of Pepsi after viewing it.
With both companies using the same form of words in their apologies, it looks like ‘missing the mark’ is becoming the knowing get-out response from brands in an exclusive marketing club for members that know how to shake things up, even offend, and still come out on top.
When you’ve set yourself up to be subversive, like Unilever’s Dove, race is one of the few ways to go.
Not once, not twice but three times now has Dove been caught out allegedly making racial slurs in its advertising messages.
In 2011 it was accused of racism in an ad for its ‘visiblecare’ range. The image had a background of skin captioned ‘before’ and ‘after’ using Dove lotion. A black woman was placed in front of the ‘before’, a white woman in front of ‘after’ and an Asian woman in the middle.
Then two years ago there was a furore over Dove’s Summer Glow lotion, described as being for people with “normal to dark skin”. That was taken to imply that consumers with darker skin were not normal.
Now there’s the three-second Facebook video clip for Dove body wash posted on Saturday 7 October, on the company’s US Facebook page.
Lol did this even look right to y'all? I mean your whole team sat down and cleared this bullshit right here? How? pic.twitter.com/WzsZfpkxAr
— Musimbwa (@UNcubeOthungayo) October 7, 2017
Images of the ad went viral after an American makeup artist, Naomi Blake, shared them with her followers on social media.
As one Facebook user said of the Dove ad: "I think they meant it's for all skin types... it went from black to white to another race".
Television presenter Khanyi Mbau, from Soweto, South Africa, took to social media to encourage people to "chill". She can’t see what all the fuss is about.
It’s interesting to see how careful Dove was not to show the black woman using its body wash.
It’s almost as if it did just enough to make a Twitter storm and kept things just short of offensive to all.
Dove, celebrating 60 years in the beauty business this year, has made a name for itself as a pro-diversity brand, much along the lines of Benetton.
It’s 13 years since it launched its 'Real Women' campaign with six curvy women sticking a finger up to convention. The bold move saw a 700% surge in the first half of 2004.
The real theme was later extended to TV showing older women asking, "Wrinkled or wonderful?" in its Pro-Age campaign. Dove, Benetton style, set out to upset the apple cart.
And it can’t be a coincidence, surely, that the company issued its 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report only a few days before the Facebook ad went viral.
The report is the result of interviews on self-esteem with 5,165 girls aged 10-17 across 14 countries and shows how eight out of 10 girls have low beauty confidence.
Perhaps the awful truth is there’s an awful lot of authenticity and cut-through for brands that get it wrong on purpose.
This latest storm for Dove is no Gerald Ratner moment. Back in 1991, a time before the over-congested online media jungle had even taken root, slipping on a banana skin could cause permanent damage.
Everyone knows the story of how jeweller Ratner wiped £500m off his company’s value overnight in a speech to the Institute of Directors when he joked (he says) that his company’s products were crap.
It’s a very different story today and a fairly safe bet that #BoycottDove, now trending on Twitter, will only boost sales.
The bottom line is that this perfect storm of social followed by traditional media coverage is the equivalent of £100m in advertising.
It can be an abusive relationship with consumers, but these days no scandal means no effective traction for brands. As we saw with Pepsi, people love brands they can hate a little, too.
These says, a Trumpised media inures us to the unacceptable. We’re becoming addicted to hysteria and outrage and that – only that – is sure to propel content virally around the world at the greatest rate of knots.
Bang On to Richard on email firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @6hillgrove