Amy H. sent in a Dove ad from O magazine. The ad clearly means to say that women get “visibly more beautiful skin” because their body wash moisturizes dry skin. However, the placement of the women in front of the “before” and “after” text may unfortunately, based on a quick glance, inadvertently convey a different message:

I continue to be puzzled that multinational corporations with resources for large-scale marketing campaigns so often stumble in awkward ways when trying to include a range of racial/ethnic groups in their materials. This seems to occur by not sufficiently taking into account existing or historical cultural representations that may provide a background for the interpretation of images or phrases in the advertising. In this case, the arrangement of the models combined with the text above and below them unfortunately intersects with a cultural history in which White skin was seen as inherently “more beautiful” than non-White skin (not to mention thinner bodies as more beautiful than larger ones).

It would be possible to make this same ad, using these same models and basic idea, in a way that avoided any potential misinterpretation — all it would take, I think, would be to take the before-and-after pics and make them small off-set images on the side, so “before” and “after” couldn’t be read as referring to the women’s bodies. Given that advertising materials are often highly scrutinized, Photoshopped, market tested, and focus grouped, I can’t quite figure out how potentially problematic racial/ethnic connotations aren’t caught before such ads are released.

UPDATE: In my analysis, I gave Dove the benefit of the doubt in assuming this was a non-intentional aspect of the ad, largely because even in the “best case scenario” where this is entirely unintended, it is problematic. However, several readers suggest that we shouldn’t too quickly assume that instances such as these are accidental.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.