A roll of the eyes. A shake of the head. A sigh of disgust. Whatever your reaction may have been to Summer's Eve's latest viral advertisements, you certainly had one.
As part of the personal-hygiene brand's Hail to the V campaign, it released a series of three ads last month featuring talking hands meant to represent vaginas. Using a hand to symbolize a vagina is problematic enough, but it gets worse: The three hands represented a black woman, a Latina and a white woman, with personalities that could have come straight out of a handbook of racial and ethnic stereotypes.
While the white hand-vagina is health conscious and advocates using Summer's Eve after a workout, the Latina vagina has an accent and opens her commercial by saying, "Ay yi yi." She even suggests getting rid of your "tacky leopard thong." Black vagina urges you to stop spending so much time styling your hair and focus on your "wunder [sic] down under." And she even manages to get a neck roll and an "mm-hmm" in before requesting you use some cleansing wash to keep your lady parts fresh before hitting the club.
The commercials caused an uproar. Ad execs and consumers were baffled that Summer's Eve — which weathered another storm last year after releasing an ad that suggested its products would give women confidence to ask for a raise — would use such offensive depictions to sell products. Though the company held strong for a few days against harsh criticism, it decided to pull the black and Latina versions of the ads. But even after removing the online ads, Summer's Eve didn't apologize for offending millions of black and Latina vaginas (excuse me, women).
In a statement to AdWeek, Stan Richards of the Richards Group, the agency that created the campaign, said, "We are surprised that some have found the online videos racially stereotypical. We never intended anything other than to make the videos relatable, and our in-house multicultural experts confirmed the approach."
Presumably, the black talking vagina was intended to appeal to the black woman — to be relatable. I'm a black woman with a black (nontalking) vagina, and I was not amused, entertained or compelled to purchase Summer's Eve products. And it's safe to assume that Latinas didn't give a thumbs-up to their "Ay yi yi" ad. Advertisers can't really think they're relating to us when they use blatant, negative stereotypes. Can they?
But even if the ads failed the relatability test, did they fail to promote the product? David W. Brown of Brown Partners, a minority-owned advertising and marketing firm in Philadelphia, is reluctant to go that far. "It all depends on what the campaign was intended to do. It is definitely getting broader exposure as a result of getting pulled than if it was a straight-up media buy."
If attention was the desired effect, then the commercials were definitely a success. But Summer's Eve isn't the only company that goes too far in the quest to create a buzz.
"This is not the first time, and of course it won't be the last time" that a company uses stereotypes to sell a product, says Al Anderson, founder of Anderson Communications and a 43-year marketing and advertising professional. "This is just a long history of disrespectful advertising. [General-market advertisers] think they know everything about us, when they know nothing."
Back in the day, companies sold products using gross caricatures of blacks — exaggerated red lips, bulging eyes — and capitalized on stereotypes about blacks' intelligence. Today we have ads that are less blatantly racist but just as offensive.
In 2001, Toyota discontinued a print campaign that featured a gold-tooth-wearing black man with a Toyota emblem on his grill after Jesse Jackson threatened a boycott. The car manufacturer issued an apology and said it was trying to reach a "young and trendy audience" with the use of "tooth art."
Last year, an Australian KFC ad showed a white man at a cricket match surrounded by cheering black sports fans. He calms the crowd of rowdy black folks by raising a bucket of chicken in the air. And as recently as February's Super Bowl, Pepsi unleashed a commercial that played off the "angry black woman" stereotype. After kicking and shoving her man for making unhealthy food choices, a black woman throws a can of soda at a white woman who smiles at her man.
In its statement, the Richards Group mentioned the use of "multicultural experts," who were consulted during the creation of the Hail to the V campaign. The use of such experts sounds like a step in the right direction — if these agencies actually listen to what they have to say.
"We are often called in after the concepts have been formulated, and our expertise is called upon to make sure the ads don't tick anybody off," says Brown. "I've had experiences when we've said no to a campaign and it goes forward anyway, with the mainstream agency saying, 'Well, we did vet this through our minority partner.' "
Solely placing the onus of common sense on diversity experts isn't enough. Ad execs of any color should be able to create ad campaigns that don't offend. And if they're not sensitive enough to know when a message has crossed the line, maybe they shouldn't be in a position to reach, and offend, millions.
Anderson says Summer's Eve's talking hands are far from the last stereotypical images we'll see in advertising, but he's confident that black consumers can make their voices heard.
"If we can even generate a portion of the energy we had during President Obama's campaign — the mobilization — we should be able to immediately flood email boxes and use social networks," he said. "Advertisers will get the message real quick."
Patrice J. Williams is a New York City-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter.