A few weeks ago, Dove captured the prize for the dumbest marketing campaign, and this week, a Brazilian brand of luxury toilet paper is trying to wrestle it away.
The “Black is beautiful” slogan has been applied to various campaigns over the years to inspire black people across the world to have self-confidence in their own beauty. Its latest appearance debuted Monday when a Brazilian paper company, Santher, launched its Personal VIP Black line, the country’s first black toilet paper, in a marketing campaign using the slogan, “Black is beautiful.”
As any sane person would expect, the internet erupted in outrage, with Afro-Brazilian activists and journalists voicing the loudest disapproval.
“They are literally taking a shit to us,” said black activist Daniela Gomes. “To use this slogan to talk about toilet paper is literally saying to our face that they are shitting on us, our fight against racism and our fight to improve our self-esteem.”
Other Brazilians made poignant jokes on social media.
“#Blackisbeautiful is the first black toilet paper in the country. These silky sheets will clean the scrotum of racism,” said Twitter user moreiralipe_.
The campaign was created by the Neogama agency, whose other clients include Renault and Asics. Since Monday, the agency has deleted all social media references with the “Black is beautiful” slogan, but the damage is done.
“Black is beautiful” became a popular slogan in the late ’60s and early ’70s during the Black Power movement, defined by the rise of leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and groups like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam.
The goal of the grassroots beauty campaign was to dispel the notion that black people’s natural features—nose size, hair texture and skin color—weren’t beautiful. Black women jettisoned their perms for Afros. Black men grew their hair into even bigger Afros. This focus on black being physically beautiful extended deep into American culture; blacks began to demand visual representation of themselves and their culture in marketing, television and movies.
Although blacks across Brazil listened to black American music and mimicked black American style in the ’70s, the Black Power movement never penetrated Brazilian culture as it did in America. “Black is beautiful” was simply a popular slogan sung by many popular artists at the time, white and black. Jorge Ben Jor released the song “Negro é Lindo” in 1971. Elisa Regina, a white singer, released a song in 1971 called “Black Is Beautiful.”
“It arrived as a slogan, but this wasn’t a part of a larger movement by blacks for rights and representation,” said Raquel Barreto, a doctoral student studying the history of the Black Panther Party. “That didn’t come until more recently. Right now, we have first and second generations of Afro-Brazilians getting college degrees.”
Barreto says that she thinks the marketing executives at Santher knew exactly what they were doing when they used the “Black is beautiful” slogan for black toilet paper.
“They are playing with it because they know the meaning. They felt they could play with it and not have big consequences,” she said.
In recent years, American brands have also co-opted the slogan. “My black is beautiful” has been used by Procter & Gamble in its African-American marketing toward women for at least the last 10 years.
When shown the Brazilian advertisement, black American marketing executive Denitria Lewis said she was shocked that anyone had approved it.
“It seems very ill thought-out,” said Lewis, who is a senior media strategist focusing on multicultural campaigns. “They also shouldn’t have used the phrase because it is about the reclamation of our unique beauty despite society’s constant diminishing. They are juxtaposing black beauty with bodily waste.”
The marketing campaign also features a white Brazilian actress, Marina Ruy Barbosa, wrapped in black toilet paper, another disturbing and offensive image.
“If you see a fair-skinned woman wrapped in black tissue, even that conjures images of slavery and captivity,” Lewis said. “There is nothing about the image that provokes any positive response.”