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Friday, June 24, 2011

The Cadbury/Naomi Campbell Controversy

If you're unfamiliar, Naomi Campbell sued Cadbury over comparing her to chocolate in an ad for Bliss Dairy Milk Chocolate. The ad's tagline was "Move Over, Naomi, There's a New Diva in Town." The Advertising Standards Authority deemed that the ad was not racist, but Cadbury pulled it.

Campbell has, to put it kindly, a reputation as a "diva." The term "diva" has morphed from "a celebrated voice in opera and theater" to "demanding superstar." Off the top of my head, stories about Campbell throwing phones and screaming at her service staff, wearing couture gowns to do community service as a deliberate snub to the process, and knowingly accepting literal "blood diamonds" from Liberia's former warlord spring immediately to mind. (In my opinion, this goes well past "diva" and toward "terror," but that's me.) Cadbury's intent was to liken the Bliss line of chocolate to Campbell's diva image (but I'm sure the intent was to compare it with the "softer" side of her diva image - I doubt they want to liken the chocolate to someone who abuses her assistants). Bliss is fierce, bold, luxurious, like Campbell. Bliss is billed as a "dreamy chocolate truffle," so fancier than your average chocolate. The photo depicts a bar of Bliss atop a mound of diamonds, so certainly Cadbury is working to cultivate a luxurious brand image for Bliss. (I did find myself wondering if the diamonds in the ad were a dig at Campbell's blood diamond scandal.)

As a black woman, I am intimately familiar with the connotations of juxtaposing blackness with chocolate. Black people have a history of being commodified, objectified, and treated uniformly (our skin tones go way beyond "chocolate" - Campbell's skin and mine look nothing alike), and slapping Campbell next to chocolate perpetuates that. They're personifying the chocolate, and there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself - all good, memorable brands have personalities. It's one of my favorite parts of branding. But they would not have used a white woman in this campaign. "Move over Barbra, there's a new diva in town," with Barbra Streisand next to a picture of milk chocolate? Never would have happened. Racism, or racially suspect behavior (there's a difference), is often subtle. This is a key example of institutionalized racism - in the brainstorming meeting, once the idea was set to compare the chocolate with a person, how many of the names tossed around were of black women? I'll probably never know, but I'm guessing "most."

Do I think Cadbury meant it "that way?" No. Should someone in the brainstorming session have tossed out the possibility that it would be taken "that way?" Absolutely. I'd have done it. I'd be curious to know the racial makeup of the team on the account, because I certainly could have seen this coming. I'd have done it with the Dove Visible Care ad too. Another ad that wasn't intended to be racist (and I truly don't think there was any negative intent there at all - it's just a careless layout), but needed someone to say "Hey, let's take another look at this."

I have issues with many of the things I've read that Campbell has done, but she does get a say in how her image - an image that she has worked for decades to cultivate and maintain, that is literally her livelihood - is used. At the core, if she doesn't want to be mentioned in the same space as chocolate, that's her right.

And at the end of the day, the intent is secondary. This is true for race relations AND marketing and PR. Marketers say it all the time: perception is reality. If the ad is perceived as racist, by Campbell or anyone, the image is tainted. (Which begs the question: why choose Campbell? Again, her reputation goes beyond "diva" and toward "criminal," and she's pretty much only in the news for bad behavior these days.) Al Sharpton was calling for a boycott. Not all press is good press.

There's no easy solution, as is typically the case with race matters. Cadbury pulled the ad, but I have issues with the ASA making the decision that something isn't racist ... it feels out of their purview. They can say the ad wasn't meant to be racist, but to just deem it completely fine along racial lines feels really dismissive to me. It reeks of "Oh, don't be so sensitive." But I do appreciate the discussion this has generated - there's no progress without discussion.

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