When Dove offered Lola Ogunyemi the opportunity to be part of their new body wash campaign, she jumped at the chance. But the Nigerian model says she had no idea she would become the “unwitting poster child” for racist advertising.
“If you Google ‘racist ad’ right now, a picture of my face is the first result. I had been excited to be a part of the commercial and promote the strength and beauty of my race, so for it to be met with widespread outrage was upsetting,” the model wrote in an open letter for The Guardian.
The Facebook ad showcased a black woman (Ogunyemi) pulling up her shirt to reveal a white, redheaded woman underneath, prompting many across social media to call for a boycott of Dove products.
“Friends from all over the world were checking on me to see if I was OK. I was overwhelmed by just how controversial the ad had become,” Ogunyemi added.
The model is of Nigerian descent — born in London and raised in Atlanta. From a very young age, she says she’s been told things like, “You’re so pretty … for a dark-skinned girl.”
“I’ve grown up very aware of society’s opinion that dark-skinned people, especially women, would look better if our skin were lighter,” she noted. “If I had even the slightest inclination that I would be portrayed as inferior, or as the ‘before’ in a before and after shot, I would have been the first to say an emphatic ‘no.’ I would have (un)happily walked right off set and out of the door. That is something that goes against everything I stand for,” she noted.
On the contrary, the model said the experience she had with the Dove team was positive.
“I had an amazing time on set. All of the women in the shoot understood the concept and overarching objective – to use our differences to highlight the fact that all skin deserves gentleness.”
Ogunyemi said that the models were “excited” at the idea of wearing nude T-shirts and turning into one another. “We weren’t sure how the final edit was going to look, nor which of us would actually be featured in it, but everyone seemed to be in great spirits during filming, including me.”
Then the first Facebook ad was released: a 13-second video clip featuring Ogunyemi, a white woman, and an Asian woman removing their nude tops and changing into each other.
“I loved it. My friends and family loved it. People congratulated me for being the first to appear, for looking fabulous, and for representing Black Girl Magic. I was proud.”
Next, the 30-second TV commercial was released in the U.S. There were seven models in the full version — different races and ages — each answering the same question: “If your skin were a wash label, what would it say?”
“Again, I was the first model to appear in the ad, describing my skin as ’20 per cent dry, 80 per cent glowing,’ and appearing again at the end,” Ogunyemi, noted. “I loved it, and everyone around me seemed to as well. I think the full TV edit does a much better job of making the campaign’s message loud and clear.”
Then one morning, Ogunyemi woke up to a message from a friend asking if the woman in the video post was really her. “I went online and discovered I had become the unwitting poster child for racist advertising. No lie.”
“I know that the beauty industry has fuelled this opinion with its long history of presenting lighter, mixed-race or white models as the beauty standard. Historically, and in many countries still today, darker models are even used to demonstrate a product’s skin-lightening qualities to help women reach this standard.”
So, having the opportunity to represent dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand felt like the perfect way for the model to remind the world that “we are here, we are beautiful, and more importantly, we are valued.”
Ogunyemi can see how the snapshots that are circulating the web have been misinterpreted, considering the fact that Dove has faced backlash in the past for the exact same issue.
“There is a lack of trust here, and I feel the public was justified in their initial outrage. Having said that, I can also see that a lot has been left out. The narrative has been written without giving consumers context on which to base an informed opinion.”
After heavy criticism, Dove apologized and removed the ad from Facebook. The brand tweeted Saturday: “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.”
While Ogunyemi agree with Dove’s response to apologize for any offence caused, she believes they could have also defended their “creative vision,” and their choice to include her, “an unequivocally dark-skinned black woman,” as a face of their campaign.
“I am not just some silent victim of a mistaken beauty campaign. I am strong, I am beautiful, and I will not be erased.”