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Unilever’s racist marketing shows why companies can’t be relied on to regulate themselves

Using racial tropes to sell ice cream and skin whiteners shows that corporate social responsibility can never be achieved voluntarily.

Launch party for Magnum ice cream in Karachi on September 21 2016. Credit: Twitter.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is supposed to govern how companies run their entire business rather than being limited to their charitable giving. As Unilever put it earlier this month, “a huge misconception around CSR is that it should be viewed as something ‘good’ that is done to negate something ‘bad.’ This attitude leads to a sense in the rest of the business that it’s being taken care of elsewhere; that it’s someone else’s problem. CSR shouldn’t be a weight on one side of a set of scales—instead it should be a collective mindset.”

This sounds great, but without appropriate regulation by government can any corporation be relied on to operate in this way? According to Unilever the answer is ‘yes.’ In fact they claim that they’ve already mainstreamed this philosophy throughout their operations:

“All our messaging around sustainability is aligned,” they proudly declare in an article explaining why they disbanded their CSR unit, “and as much dedication went into creating a shared passion internally as it did into repositioning our brands and purpose with consumers. For Unilever, this goes further than just our business, but right across our extended value chain. It’s every brand, every market. No exceptions. The result? People in the business are pulling in the same direction. Unity is truly a force to be reckoned with.”

In that case, why are they marketing ice cream by hiring a black man to sit in a bath of chocolate?

At a high profile marketing event in Karachi at the end of September designed to position Magnum ice cream as a luxury brand to the Pakistani elite, Unilever set out to create an image of wanton excess, replete with glamorous models, wild outfits, and that black man awash in chocolate. At no point did anyone from Unilever challenge this blatant racist trope, and it was unashamedly included in some of the media puff pieces published the next day.

But then something important happened. Pakistani journalists and activists started to challenge Unilever, and the story went viral on social media. They started to contact the company’s leadership directly via twitter. Unilever’s response was silence.

Pakistan’s Tribune newspaper wrote a forceful critique of the company’s marketing strategy which stated that:

“This dark man was used as a prop to entertain other wealthy individuals at the party. Likening a black man to chocolate is akin to reducing an entire community to a colour. Small wonder then that we live in a racist world. The visual exemplifies the struggle for racial equality and empowerment as the world distorts black identity. It goes on to reveal that even in 2016, the colour of one’s skin carries weight.”

British journalist Sunny Hundal also wrote about the incident. Perhaps the most shocking part of his article comes right at the end: “We have asked Unilever for a response,” Hundal writes, “and will update this when we get one.”

According to Unilever, “in today’s complex and hyper–connected world, brands have a responsibility to create and lead for positive change” because “brands with a purpose are at the heart of Unilever and we believe that the small choices we all make every day can make a big difference to the world we live in.”

But not, it seems, in this case. Even after five more days they’ve maintained a stubborn silence.

Unilever speaks loudly about championing equality and justice at the United Nations, declaring—at the same time that the furore was unfolding in Pakistan—that “we need more courageous leaders who drive transformation beyond self-interest and focus on common good.” The company has championed action on climate change, challenged the notion of business as a vehicle for profit maximization, and pledged to drop all sexist advertising. It even partners in the West with anti-racist groups like Hope Not Hate.  

But elsewhere its record is much more controversial. Unilever must know that what it did in Pakistan is wrong. They understand that darker-skinned people in South Asia—from oppressed castes to Siddis/Sheedis  of African-origin and other minorities—face marginalization and discrimination. They know this in part because they continue to profit from selling skin-whitening screams, marketed with messages that “whitening beauty” will enable a woman to get back the man she loves or find a place in college

This is how a company operates if it’s willing to compromise its values in order to make money, but Unilever says that it is different. “Purpose must sit at the core of the brand,’ they say, “driving everything it does. It cannot be an add-on or something that comes and goes according to whim or budget.”

Of course, Unilever’s record is no worse than those of any other big corporations. It’s just that their promises on Corporate Social Responsibility are so much bigger, louder and bolder. The double standards on display in using racist tropes to sell ice-cream or in trading off racial prejudice to sell skin whiteners show that Corporate Social Responsibility can never be achieved by companies when they are acting alone, driven only by the conversation between their conscience and their profit motive. Public pressure and government regulation are essential.

Unilever downplays both these things, highlighting instead the importance of consumers.  “Consumers are discerning,’ wrote the company’s marketing boss in the Guardian earlier this year, “They can tell the difference between a brand with a purpose and a brand with a PR agenda. It’s this authenticity that consumers recognise and reward because today’s consumers can smell bullshit a mile away.” 

About the author

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, and Campaigns and Policy Director at ActionAid International. He began his development work at the grassroots, as an activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76.


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