Article: "Because you're worth it," only if you're white.
According to Samuel Thomas of the SOS Racisme, a French campaign group victorious in holding L'Oreal accountable for its blatant racism, discrimination based on race was committed on the belief that it would be in the financial interest of the corporation. Because clearly, women of colour don't wash their hair with shampoo. We just grow it by the millimeter and wax it off the instant it gets too dirty, I suppose, and spend our money on other things, like wax.
To play the devil's advocate for a moment-- and you'll see me doing it a lot, as there's nothing more satisfying than watching racist logic march a precious brand into a twitching PR nightmare-- I'd say that the promotion may have been planned to succeed through the marketing of exclusivity. The case made it into the news, but how exactly is it anything new?
Corporations spend millions of dollars to pack heavily Photoshopped images of thin white female bodies into glossy magazines and post them on billboards overlooking congested freeways. It seems like hiring an all-white marketing team of living bodies would merely represent the next logical step. Heck, even a step back, since they're actual people, flaws and all. Why, those "overreacting" race activists must aspire to nothing more than to become professional eyeroll recipients.
The faces of advertising are so white, so normalized, to the point that putting too many women of colour on the billboards may convey a marketing message something similar to what Dove was trying to pull with its campaign for Real Beauty: We're revolutionary. We represent a challenge to established norms by including women in our ads that do not conform to rigid beauty standards. In this battle for consumer attention in the white supremist patriarchal context, a woman can be a signifier of revolution by simply being of colour. And by this, I mean a woman of colour presented in a way that does not heavily rely on racial stereotyping, an ad that doesn't dwell on her otherness or some other "ethnic theme."
Obviously L'Oreal doesn't want to go that way. It's going the opposite way with its own message. This campaign, left to run its mouth on its consumer base, would have reinforced rigid standards of beauty that not only include age and body size, as the fax demonstrates, but ethnicity as well. In the most concise terms, strengthening a brand involves targeting a group and making its members feel special. You have to protect your promotional investment by obsessively eliminating any superfluous element that may dilute your message in the game of focused and deliberate exclusion. And L'Oreal was definitely deliberate.
Christine Cassan, a former employee at Districom, a communications firm acting for Garnier, told the court her clients demanded white hostesses. She said that when she had gone ahead and presented candidates "of colour" a superior in her own company had said she had "had enough of Christine and her Arabs".
One woman working in the recruitment firm involved said foreign-sounding names or photos showing a candidate was of Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian or other African origin would ensure candidates were eliminated. Another said: "I once had a good woman candidate but she was non-white. I had to ask someone to pretend that our list was full. It was hard."
It seems that if women of colour are to ever be courted by a L'Oreal promotion, it would be with a subtly different tone. After all, who among their new recruits for the Fructus Style line would need something like this?
Here we see by the product description who they're really targeting in the selling of this tongue-twister of a snake oil potion. In one breath, you can associate "white" with "perfect" in the context of altering skin colour for aesthetic purposes with the frantic urgency of anything performed with triple action. It sounds splendidly unhealthy and neurotic at the same time.
Following years of research on Asian skin, L'Oreal Skincare Laboratories invent a new advanced triple action technology that acts at each step of the skin darkening process, for a perfect whitening efficiency. New Melanin-block acts to regulate the production of melanin, the main source of skin darkening and brown spots. Powerful whitening ingredient, its efficiency has been proven scientifically: up to 53% melanin production.
Results: After just one application, your skin is soft and supple, and feels comfortable all day long. Day after day, skin recovers its natural qualities: your skin is visibly fairer, more luminous, transparent and even toned. It is smoother and younger looking.
There's a funny disconnection between the way this product is presented and the L'Oreal slogan, Because you're worth it. Could you imagine someone slipping this into your hands at the shopping mall, polished to the teeth and exuding the same buddy-buddy-best-friend-check-out-my-Biore-strip glow hemorraging from most women's magazines in the West in hopes you'd fix your face for them "because you're worth it"?
Oh sure, says the devil's advocate again. I've had perfume and lotion samples pushed my way now and then. Perfumes and lotions both perform toward improving my physical feminine presence in some way, even if on a mostly illusionary and subjective basis.
But admittedly, what I did ignore right there was the fact they included my race in the manufactured siren's call for the whitening cream. They didn't say it outright though, that it was just for me. But just enough to get the point across that they experimented on people with the same skin as me. I guess I'm supposed to be convinced, then, that it works, and that it works for me as well as other members of my ethnic group. You know, unlike many other products created for Caucasian people: pink-based foundations that look garish on me, hair dye that doesn't penetrate, styling products too weak for thick hair, and so forth. To target a marginalized segment in a Western country where most products are positioned in that Euro-centric space, this communication form is very necessary, and it keeps people from thinking too much about it if it's subtle.
Post-colonial attitudes also complicate matters when coupled with the traditional East Asian elitist belief that paler skin is more beautiful than darker skin. The white supremist view that all people of East Asian descent want to become white can be countered with the stereotypical view that all Asians associate white skin with nobility and dark skin with labourers working under the scorching sun over generations.
They seem to disagree on one thing. But they agree on another. Opposing, yet cooperating. Accepting of the same sort-of truths, only framing them differently. The Asian Americans with their own individual opinions, those that have turned their backs on some traditional beliefs much in the same way some Western white people turned their backs on their some of their own-- don't exist in such a debate.
I'm not supposed to be offended when I come across implicit suggestions of self-hatred in conversations about Asian Americans getting dye jobs-- for whatever reason, whether it be really to express a personal style or for sheer experimental pleasure. When Asian Americans slather on the sunscreen to ward off skin cancer in our golden years, there's an extra box to tick on the list of motives that don't exist for white people doing the same thing. I'm supposed to instinctively just know why some Asian pop stars in Asia line up at plastic surgery clinics to enlarge their eyes and be able to provide self-humbling, indirectly flattering answers when asked by white people, the sort of response that goes directly against the grain of my personality.
So when retailers stock whitening creams at eye level, my eye level, I'm roundly expected to either take it or leave it. Love it or hate it. As long as I don't dwell on it, or even casually state my observations, against the quiet exchange of racism for dollars. I'm not meant to question why L'Oreal will target Asian women with its whitening cream and go to such scandalous lengths to whitewash a shampoo line, mere hair detergent, that all women of all colours can technically use.
Because, as we've all heard, there's a politicallyspunmanufacturedframedlimitingdehumanizing truth behind every stereotype, and it'd be awfully silly to dispute something so subjectively obvious. I would be self-selecting myself to become an object of suspicion, a trouble-maker belonging in neither camp speaking against a sacred consensus that has been formed between the fashion police of Western magazines and the disapproving frowns of my paper parasol-wielding ancestors.
So if I accept this and go back to the slogan, I believe it could work, just in a different manner. Only after buying the triple-action whitening blah-blah-blah product and becoming "perfect" would the consumer then be "worth it," whereas the Fructus Style line campaign, fronted by women that physically represent their target audience, communicates that consumers are worth it as they are. They should spend money on themselves and buy the product because it suits them. Not because they need the product in order to raise their worth on par with the brand. That's for the segment on the sales manager's chart labeled Other.
Now I come to the fun part, which is great, really, because this devil's advocate role in particular is starting to cramp my style. If L'Oreal really wants to hit it big with Generation Y, a third of which belong to ethnic groups other than Caucasian, they're really going to have to innovate on their old tired marketing pitches.
You, L'Oreal, after after my money. Not that of my UV-deflecting umbrella-toting ancestors if they ever did tote a UV-deflecting umbrella.
You heard that. In the new on-demand advertising era, we're in control here. We're leaving the television in favour of the Internet and the comfort of our own surfing decisions. Your advertising sucks. Your marketing sucks. Heck, I've returned from traveling around the world forging my own adventures and experiences through a kaleidescope of economic and social change to recognize the same tired commercials and the same boring jingles gusting from the television downstairs, from over a year ago, when my parents, the older generation, turn it on just before they pop in a DVD. L'Oreal, you make me laugh. And if you've done your homework on marketing whatsoever, this shouldn't be new at all.
Your target audience is educated, more politically conscious than older generations, and not afraid to make our mark. We're not going to fall for your beauty tricks any longer. Remember Paula Begoun, webmistress of CosmeticCop.com and author of Don't Go to the Cosmetic Counter Without Me? The beauty industry went ballistic when she first entered the scene a few years ago. You lost so much money.
It's only a matter of time before more women see through the illusions of the beauty industry and learn what scientifically works and doesn't work in skincare. And because there are so many dizzying products and types of products to choose from, the majority of your customers aren't going to be wielding that thick brick of a book when they go shopping. They're going to rely on word of mouth. And when a product is chosen, dubbed the Holy Grail product in beauty discussion circles since it's hard to find a good one in an ocean of crap, consumers tend to stick with it and go deaf to jingles trying to lure them away. They're boring. The product works. And there's no reason to fix it. There's no reason to listen. Especially if the message is offensive. Yes, we're not afraid to say we find that offensive. And if you're going to run around like a chicken without its head in a make-believe bubble where all Asian women are trying desperately hard to become like white women, your competition is going to eat you for breakfast.
It's time the public relations field questioned the kneejerk assumption that race activists nitpick at advertisements individually. Usually this only arises from debates in which the activists are forced to undergo the tedious process of educating people on their racism, and it backfires by making the educators seem myopic in association. The truth is, nobody stops at just the ads. PR covers everything from the company's hiring practices to the nature of its communications. Advertising is dead. PR matters. Deal with it. We've got the money, and as a generation that has witnessed the Boomers throw theirs around irresponsibility, we're quite willing to keep it.
That was fun.
P.S. Now part of the L'Oreal family:
The Body Shop
And probably more, so heads up. It's a shame about the Body Shop. Way to destroy a formerly socially conscious brand by getting the dirty racist conglomerate mitts all over it.
One more thing. Take a peek into L'Oreal's racist past. Hat tip to Progressive Gold's blog and the entry Because You're Not Worth It.