Racism is one of the last things any company wants to be accused of. Of all the kinds of corporate wrongdoing, racism is one of the hardest to defend against. For one thing, there’s not much “on the other hand.” It’s not like child labour, where you can say yeah, it’s unfortunate, but on the other hand these kids really do need the income. Racism is just bad, with no upside. The other problem is that racism (or at least accusations of same) can arise without anyone having racist intentions, let alone racist corporate policies.
See, for example, this story, by Mark Sweney for The Guardian: Cadbury apologises to Naomi Campbell over ‘racist’ ad:
Confectionery giant Cadbury has apologised to Naomi Campbell after the supermodel claimed an advert comparing her to one of its chocolate bars was racist.
The advert for Cadbury’s Bliss range of Dairy Milk chocolate bars used the strapline “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town”….
Now, the ad isn’t necessarily racist. Campbell certainly is a diva (in the negative sense of that word) regardless of her skin colour. The word carries connotations of success, popularity, and glamour, as well as (more recently, I think) more than a touch of spoiled brattiness. Campbell certainly fits the bill, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if any ad using the word “diva,” regardless of what it is advertising, referred to her. And, as a matter of logic, to say that both Campbell and a chocolate bar are in the same category (i.e., “diva”) is not to say that Campbell herself is a chocolate bar. So I suspect the intention probably wasn’t racist, even in a passive, thoughtless way. But who knows what the ad’s makers were thinking? Maybe it really was a reference to ‘chocolatey skin,’ the kind of reference that, like many other racial terms or allusions, is probably best left for self-referential use by members of the relevant groups. Anyway, the perception that the ad was racist is there, and that’s enough: enough both to result in genuinely hurt feelings and to generate a serious PR problem. So yes, it’s good that Cadbury retracted the ads.
You’ve got to wonder how it is that all the smart people at Cadbury (including their PR department) and at their ad agency (Fallon), didn’t see this coming. Surely someone there must have realized that this is dangerous turf. Why didn’t someone raise a red flag? Is the “can-do” attitude there so strong that no one had the sense to say “wait a minute”? One way or the other, this case raises issues about corporate culture, whether in terms empowering employees to speak up, or, as Campbell herself rightly suggests, in terms of fostering diversity (of all kinds) at the level of senior management.
Finally, it must be somewhat galling for Cabury to be lectured to by Naomi Campbell, queen of disreputable behaviour. Ms. Campbell’s own history of questionable behaviour doesn’t rob her critique of its force, but I guess it does make her something of an expert on the offering and timing of public apologies.