South African shops are pulling TRESemmé products off their shelves after widespread protests over an online ad denigrating Black hair.
The ad, which was shown on the chain pharmacy Clicks’ website, showed four separate images of hair. The first two featured Black women, labeling their hair “frizzy and dull” and “dry and damaged.” The images were juxtaposed against two images showing white hair, one was labeled “fine and flat” and the other, “normal.”
As the BBC reports, the ad triggered protests led by opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who called the ad “racist” and “dehumanizing.”
South Africa has a long history of hair discrimination on account of apartheid. Government officials would classify South Africans as Black or mixed race using what was then called the “pencil rule,” named for the process of running a pencil through one’s hair and seeing how easily it would pull through.
As Botlhale Tshetlo, the founder of natural hair salon Hairtural Studio in Johannesburg told CNN: “if it got stuck in the hair and didn’t fall, the person was classified as Black.”
“The implications of this are that Black identity exists as inferior to the identity of white people. It is an assertion that white standards of beauty are to be aspired to and features of Black represent damage, decay and abnormality,” the EFF said in a statement earlier this week.
As a result of the protests, which were held at Clicks stores around the country, the pharmacy chain, along with Pick N Pay, Woolworths, and Dischem, said they have removed all TRESemmé branded products from their shelves.
Unilever, which owns the TRESemmé brand, acknowledged that the ad played into racist stereotypes about Black hair.
In the fallout from the ad, the director of the campaign has left the company, Unilever said on Thursday, in a joint statement with the EFF. The multinational corporation also promised an internal investigation that could result in more disciplinary action.
“Unilever expresses its remorse to all South Africans, Black women in particular, for the racist TRESemmé SA image,” it added.
According to CNN, Unilever will take all TRESemmé SA products from stores for 10 days to show “its remorse for the offensive and racist image.” It also pledged a donation of 10,000 sanitary pads and sanitizers to informal settlements.
The conglomerate has come under increased scrutiny and criticism In the wake of worldwide protests addressing systemic racism. In June, the company renamed its “Fair & Lovely” brand, which promised consumers lighter skin tones. The brand was especially prevalent in African and Asian markets, where skin bleaching and lightening products have a long and complex history.
The EFF campaign against Clicks was short but intense, lasting five days and targeting 425 out of 720 stores. Some videos on social media showed protesters dressed in red throwing shelves in stores. Clicks wasn’t able to resume normal operations until the protests ended.
But the controversy over the TRESemmé was about more than racist hair stereotypes. Protesters also decried the fact that in South Africa, Western brands take up an abundance of shelf space, leaving little room for local companies to make their mark.
In a statement with the EFF, Clicks said it would replace the TRESemmé brand with locally sourced hair care brands.
“Stocking local brands that are better formulated for the South African consumer is an important decision, long overdue,” Tshetlo told CNN.