Reaction to Procter & Gamble ad about racial bias: 'The cost of taking a stand'

 

Camera icon P&G
In a scene from “The Talk,” a mother instructs her daughter that being told she is “pretty for a black girl” is not a compliment. “You are beautiful, period.”

It’s called “The Talk,” and it’s a series of vignettes depicting black mothers through the generations teaching their children how to survive racial bias.

It’s also a Procter & Gamble commercial.

The ad, which debuted Aug. 8 on TV, has struck a nerve with the public, particularly since a rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly. In fact, the two-minute commercial has garnered similarly polarized positions.

Depending on your point of view, one of the country’s largest consumer-goods corporations has been courageous in reflecting the different realities of many of its customers.

Or the company that makes Tide, Febreze, Bounty, Pampers, and Crest has created race-baiting propaganda worthy of a boycott.

Either way, it has gotten people talking, and that means the commercial has been effective, said Devon Powers, associate professor of advertising at Temple University.

“The ad is going to attract some people, and it’s going to repel other people,” she said. “That’s the cost of taking a stand.”

In the commercial, a mother combs her young daughter’s hair as her child tells her that she had been called “pretty — for a black girl.”

In response to her son’s hearing a racial slur, a mother says: “Listen, it’s an ugly, nasty word, and you are going to hear it. Nothing I can do about that. But you are not going to let that word hurt you. You hear me?” The boy silently nods.

When a teenager heads into the night for band practice, his mother asks whether he has ID “in case they stop you.”

“I think we live in a time where it’s difficult for a company to sit by the sidelines,” Powers said. “There’s a lot of very visible social positions, a lot of social activism, and we have consumers who are demanding that the companies that they buy from participate in the political process.”

It’s not the first time a corporation has sold products with a social message — “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” in 1971, linked peace with soda in the wake of flower-power antiwar protests.

Nor is P&G’s campaign the only one to cause a controversy or to go viral: In a Pepsi commercial that aired earlier this year — perhaps in  an attempt to rekindle that ’70s Coca-Cola magic — model and reality-show star Kendall Jenner defuses tensions at a generic rally by handing police a Pepsi. Twitter went wild, contending that the company was appropriating imagery from black antipolice-violence protests to sell soft drinks — specifically the image of Iesha Evans, who stood in front of a line of police in riot gear at a Black Lives Matter protest after the police-shooting death last year of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. (Pepsi pulled the ad after one day and apologized.)

The P&G ad, which doesn’t mention the company name until the end of the narrative, stands out because it takes a specific stand on an issue — being sympathetic to the history of racial bias and discrimination — with, mostly, success.

When “The Talk” was originally posted this summer online, it went viral, garnering more than 20 million views, said Damon Jones, P&G director of global company communications.

But the commercial actually builds on P&G’s 10-year-old “My Black Is Beautiful” campaign, he said, which was started by black P&G employees to redefine standards of beauty. “We definitely want to inspire constructive dialogue so we can get to a better place as a society.”

It’s also the latest of several P&G commercials that have addressed social issues such as race, gender, or equality for LGBTQ families.

In 2014, the company produced its “Like a Girl” campaign for Always feminine-hygiene products in which people are asked what it means to “throw like a girl,” or “fight like a girl.” Said Jones: “After several years, we redefined what people hear when they hear the phrase ‘like a girl.’ ”

No controversy there. But “The Talk” immediately got pushback from viewers who called the ad racist.

On conservative websites, such columnists as Michelle Malkin, an Asian American blogger and senior editor at Conservative Review, blasted P&G  for “identity-politics pandering.” Others have called “The Talk”  antiwhite and antipolice.

The University of Pennsylvania’s John L. Jackson Jr., dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice, sees it differently. He says P&G’s ad is powerful, an example of corporate social responsibility because it is being responsive to the diversity of the communities it serves.

“In this nuanced way,” Jackson said, “it ticks off these small moments when a black parent teaches a black child what it means to negotiate a landscape that doesn’t always feel as welcoming and inviting as it should.”

But “The Talk” was also strategic, Powers said. “I don’t think that a company as big and savvy as P&G would have done this just out of the goodness of their heart.

“The benefit of establishing a stance on an issue that’s very polarizing outweighs the costs.”

Why the ad is polarizing isn’t obvious, as it never specifically discusses white people or calls police racist.

“If you read the ad generously, then this is a particular way some people experience America,” Jackson said. But of the people who are dismissive, who aren’t in the community that experiences those things, “they see it as attacking America as racist. It’s another example of saying America is bad.”

Jones said P&G would make no apologies for depicting scenes that have happened in real black families for generations.

“We try to help critics understand that the ads are based on the real-life experiences of our customers,” he said. “Just because that is not your reality doesn’t mean that it isn’t someone else’s.

“Our goal is to connect with our consumers in powerful and relevant ways, and having compelling advertising is one way to do that.”