The ad was simple enough. It showed a black woman removing her brown top to reveal a white woman in a pale top. She then removed her top to reveal an Asian woman ... you get the picture.

The problem, though, was that the brand was Dove, maker of soap. The narrative of soap is that it makes you cleaner, so it wasn’t long before social media joined the dots. The message that Dove had inadvertently sent out was condemned and a chorus demanding a boycott began to gather steam.

It wasn’t long before Dove was moved to tweet: “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence it caused.”

And Dove issued a statement: “The short video was intended to convey that Dove body wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong.”

Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also apologised.

It is highly unlikely that Dove deliberately chose to produce a racist ad — no major brand would.

But that is not the issue. The real problem here is one of negligence. The brand’s managers, advertising executives and marketing specialists failed to see what was in front of them: the strong possibility of misinterpretation.

One “leading agency strategic director”, apparently not willing to be named in the charged environment, told Business Day: “This is yet another lesson for brands that are often forced to act quickly to meet speed-of-market demand for information to slow down and consider consequences. So many brands are in a hurry to trend online that they don’t think of the damage they might cause.”

Though it is difficult to see why Dove had to “act quickly to meet speed-of-market demand for information” in this case, the remark makes a good point: you need to think at least twice before exposing your brand on social media unless you have managers who can read between the lines as quickly and as well as users of Twitter or Facebook do.

If you persist in placing your brand in the hands of the tone deaf, you will only have yourself to blame when it is burnt to a crisp on social media.

Please sign in or register to comment.