South Africa


How did Clicks – and so many other brands – get it so wrong?

How did Clicks – and so many other brands – get it so wrong?
Dove released a marketing campaign showing a black woman “turning herself white” after using Dove Body Wash. Photo:Screengrabs

In the aftermath of the Clicks hair product advertisement debacle, one of the biggest questions is how and why do such adverts keep happening, and how can this be stopped?

South Africans were outraged when retailer Clicks, on its website, showed a TRESemmé advert depicting a white woman’s hair as “fine & flat” and “normal” while a black woman’s hair was described as “dry & damaged” and “frizzy & dull”. How did one of South Africa’s biggest retailers get it so wrong? 

“Representation is important and it matters … Black women have been subjected to European aesthetics of beauty for centuries,” said Nelisa Ngqulana, the managing director of PR Trendz ZA. 

“We are now in a moment where African beauty in all its forms has its rightful places … For a brand that sells to black women to not know that, portrays a sense of tone-deafness and disrespect for the dignity of black people,” Ngqulana told Daily Maverick

When asked about the impact of the images, Ngqulana said that, “They take us back. They put us in a position where we must constantly explain ourselves and why we deserve respect … We shouldn’t have to be subjected to this. It is not our place to constantly educate.” 

Soon after the outrage started on social media, Clicks issued a statement on 4 September: “We would like to issue an unequivocal apology. We have acted swiftly to remove the images, which go against everything we believe in at Clicks. We do not condone racism of any sort and are strong advocates of natural hair,” the statement (published on social media) read.

Over the past few days, a senior executive responsible for the advert has resigned, while the other individuals who were on the team from Clicks have been suspended and are awaiting disciplinary action. 

The offensive Clicks advert. Over the past few days, a senior executive responsible for the advert has resigned. Photo:Screengrabs

All this while the EFF has protested at Clicks stores nationwide. The company has been locked in meetings with the political party over the images. In the aftermath, Clicks has removed the TRESemmé range from its shelves and has committed to replace it with locally sourced hair products. 

On 8 September, Clicks wrote in a statement: “In addition, Clicks has been involved in extensive discussions with the departments of Labour and Trade and Industry over the past few days and will be working closely with them to help develop the local beauty market in South Africa.” 

TRESemmé and its parent company, Unilever, have since apologised, and the Shoprite Group (Shoprite and Checkers), Dis-Chem, Woolworths and Pick n Pay have all removed TRESemmé products. 

Clicks is but one of a number of companies berated for poor representation. 

The offensive H&M advert. In 2018, the popular Swedish clothing brand apologised after pictures showed a black boy wearing a hoodie that read ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’. Photo: Screengrabs

In 2018, the popular Swedish clothing brand H&M apologised after pictures showed a black boy wearing a T-shirt that read “coolest monkey in the zoo”. In South Africa, the EFF took offence to this, labelling it as racist, and protests turned violent at stores. At the time, branding and advertising expert Thebe Ikalafeng told News24 the ad was unacceptable as the word ‘monkey’ had been used against black people “derogatively to dehumanise them”. H&M issued an apology and said, “We agree with all the criticism that this has generated – we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists.” 

In 2017, beauty brand Dove came under fire. The brand (coincidentally also owned by Unilever), released a marketing campaign showing a black woman “turning herself white” after using Dove Body Wash. The social media advert showed Lola Ogunyemi, a dark-skinned model, taking off her shirt to reveal a white woman underneath.

The advert received global backlash, with Dove offering what many considered as a frivolous apology: “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence it caused.”  

The ad was swiftly taken down. This wasn’t the first time Dove had missed the mark. In 2011, a print advert for another body wash product showed three women standing in front of “before” and “after” boards: the black woman was the “before”, the white woman was the “after”. 

Popular alcohol brand Savanna came under fire in August 2020 for an advertisement that didn’t feature black women, although they are considered Savanna’s primary consumers. The brand quickly responded with this tweet: 

Gail Schimmel, CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board, told Daily Maverick the board had received 10 complaints about the Clicks website advert.

“The Advertising Regulatory Board has as its primary purpose the protection of consumers. To that end, when we find that an advertisement is misleading or offensive, we will order the advertiser to remove the advertisement to prevent future harm. Providing they cooperate, we do not issue further sanctions,” said Schimmel. 

She told Daily Maverick that because Clicks had removed the advert, issued an apology and taken steps to address the problem, “there is therefore no need for the Advertising Regulatory Board to intervene further, as the advertisement is no longer running and we would not be in a position to issue further sanctions”. 

Schimmel said, “I … think the sheer stupidity of the ad has outraged people – it is so clearly a case of thoughtlessness, perpetuated by a team of people.” 

When asked if there could be any changes made in the advertising industry, Schimmel said, “From our perspective, we are looking at what training we can do on what the rules actually are. I feel strongly that knowing the rules – knowing that there are actual rules about this sort of thing – will empower people to speak up and to stand up when ads make them feel uncomfortable at the conception stages.”

Bongani Gosa, the creative director of BWD advertising agency, said clients need to hold advertising companies accountable for diversity and representation. Gosa is part of Black Agencies, a directory where potential clients can seek out black-owned and black-run agencies in South Africa. The directory lists black-owned or black-run agencies that have more than five full-time employees and contactable details. It also provides information and support to these, whether through potential projects or teaming up for bigger joint projects. 

He said in the recent Nikon case, where the camera brand ran an advert featuring a predominantly white set of influencers, bar one black influencer, Gosa and other creatives went to the company and told them Nikon would be boycotted until the issue was resolved. 

Read in Sunday Times: Black creatives call for boycott of Nikon over lack of diversity in new campaign

“One of the other guys who met up with the CEO spoke to the CEO and told him that this is wrong and the issue was fixed,” said Gosa, adding, “we tackle these issues as they arise.” Gosa said these issues, like the Clicks one, arise when power is not transformed properly – where black people are juniors in advertising and marketing firms, but at top level, executive decision-making remains with white people. 

Weighing in on the topic, creative consultant and former executive creative director at Hero Marketing, Jabulani Sigege, said effective diversity lies in ensuring that all voices are listened to: “If their presence isn’t properly acknowledged or they’ve been placed there for the wrong reasons, then what is the point?” 

When asked if marketing and advertising executive agencies are unable to detect that they have humiliated or offended black people, Gosa said, “You’ve seen gogos with sunglasses for MAQ [a popular washing powder brand], people dancing for pap … It happens all the time, when black people are made to look stupid.”

Gosa added that, “advertising has been predominantly white, but over time, things have been slowly changing”. 

He said that while there has been transformation in the industry, there has been resistance, but admitted there was a “lack of will to transform the industry because remember, transformation needs to be led if we have to be frank and honest”. 

Gosa said transformation needed to be led from the client’s side – asking if there are black senior executives at agencies and also, within their own companies. “You are giving power and control to the agency, and also you are almost forcing the agency to transform. If you don’t do that, then nothing changes.” 

Regarding the effect of poor transformation on black women, Ngqulana said, “Black women are often invisible in boardrooms. Meaning that we may sometimes be present around the table, however, our voices aren’t heard or taken seriously.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Stephen Davies says:

    Maybe the real problem is the continual shaming/undermining of all women by the cosmetics and “product” industries. Since apparently there will always by SOMETHING wrong with your hair that OUR AMAZING PRODUCT will fix.

  • M D Fraser says:

    If one considers how much time money and effort is expended by black women on fake hair, fake eyebrows, fake eyelashes, fake nails, fake skin tone and fake American accents, it seems to me they are ‘trying for white’ themselves. So, if the advertisers are giving them what they want, is that wrong ? Just asking.

    • Sandisiwe Shoba says:

      Wow! That’s an exceptionally narrow and problematic viewpoint. Putting a “Just asking” at the end of that comment doesn’t excuse its insensitivity.

    • Bridget McCormick says:

      White women also colour in their eyebrows, wear fake eyelashes, fake nails, tan their skins with lotion or spray and put on accents, so I find your assumption a bit redundant. Just saying…

    • Jason says:

      Hi Devlyn, have you considered that some (certainly not all) people of colour who do this are trying to conform to a standard of “beauty” as perpetuated by marketing and advertising? What you are describing is a symptom, not a cause…

    • James Leroy says:

      Devlyn, you worded that completely incorrectly. This is particularly about hair and you certainly are correct when referring to hair. Cause or symptom, Jason, doesn’t matter. Way over 90% of black women, rich or poor, wear wigs or artificial extensions that emulate straight hair and no, Bridget, I can’t recall ever knowing a white woman that wears a wig every day – ever. Almost every black woman from the EFF toy-toying and breaking things at Clicks stores during the week had artificial hair or extensions emulating straight hair. I bet if Julius Malema sent us photos of all his ex-girlfriends, they too would be wearing wigs or extensions emulating straight hair. I’m not too sure what is “narrow” about this viewpoint, Sandiswe. Perhaps you can correct me or give a reason why it is a narrow and problematic viewpoint. I, personally (and I’m not saying this to be politically correct) think black women look beautiful with their hair kept naturally – Look at Miss South Africa AND Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi for goodness sake! But either black women themselves don’t like the way their natural hair looks or, more likely, black men prefer long, straight hair. It is a social issue to be confronted by black people and there is no need to condone or even legitimise the hooligan behavior of the EFF or to blame white people again!

  • Stephen Taylor says:

    The mandate of the Human Rights Commission as contained in Section 184 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996 is as follows:
    1. The South African Human Rights Commission must –
    a) promote respect for human rights and a culture of human rights;
    b) promote the protection, development and attainment of human rights; and
    c) monitor and assess the observance of human rights in the Republic.

    Reading this article makes me wonder what the SAHRC has actually achieved after decades.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Until we know who designed these ads no comment can be considered valid. There cannot be an ad agency in the world that is as stupid and as ignorant as this. Conspiracy theories abound!

    • Bridget McCormick says:

      Unfortunately with on-line advertising there is often no follow-through with regards to fact checking or proof-reading, unlike printed media where an ad goes through many sets of hands before the final printed production, so it’s very easy for mistakes and bad judgements to slip through. You cannot fail to notice the amount of spelling errors that frequently occur on-line, whether in advertorial or editorial comment.

  • Graham Falken says:

    The H&M ad actually reads ‘coolest m……. in the jungle’ not ‘zoo’ – even worse!

  • Kathryn Peck says:

    I agree with Steve, the marketing industry depends on identifying or creating needs/ inadequacies and then promising a solution: their product, or related products so as to grow their market and the market overall. So denigrating any natural appearance is a very easy route to helping to establish a growing market and income stream.
    Re the Clicks Ad: I have been told that the posted ad had 4 pictures: a black woman with “problem hair,” pic 2, post Tresemme: problem solved. Then pic 3: white woman with problem hair (flat and fine – we grew up to regard flat and fine hair, as an unforgiveable failing); pic 4 post Tresemme: full bodied, bouncy hair? Is this a myth? I can’t find the original ad online. If not, then agreed: gross and racist advertising but no excuse for EFF to trash anything, or for our government to let them.

  • Meindert Hoving says:

    Am I the only one who thinks that EFF has been paid to do this by the local hair care competition?

  • Rob vZ says:

    In fairness to Unilever, the offending Clicks ad was created by a black-owned agency with a black creative team. They were appealing to a market segment that they understood – aspiration to Western concepts of f beauty. It is the same reason that “skin-lightening” products are popular. Unilever are simply selling people what they want to buy – in this case, Western beauty. Blame the market, not the marketer. That is not say that the ad is not distasteful, as comparing two cultures is highly problematic. But having violent race-culture police dictating what constitutes taste is equally terrifying. Will Mr Malema soon be demanding that all black women no longer wear hair extensions or blonde wigs? A slippery slope to “cultural purity”.

  • Martin Engelbrecht says:

    Women don’t have to do anything to look beautiful they are already beautiful. Our sick media and the world of advertising need to stop shaming women of all races. Women are beautiful and don’t need to spend money to feel worth it. It’s a fake world and women need to stand up. I don’t condone the EFF’s actions but change is here to stay.

  • Rory Short says:

    The reason for existence of any business is that it provides a product or service that meets a customer need. If it fails to do that it will go out of business. No wonder we in South Africa are getting poorer by the day as business management’s energies are being diverted from their real tasks to tasks laid upon them by those who are not their customers.

  • Douglas Taylor says:

    Hey, come to the UK where sunbeds and fake tan are all the rage – white women trying to be something else. Perhaps, with enough social mixing over time, we will all become coffee coloured – then watch the green-eyed folk pick on the brown eyes! I wonder if the human race (I) is capable of just accepting others and themselves as they (we) are?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Make your taxes work for you

Donate to Daily Maverick’s non-profit arm, the Scorpio Investigative Unit, by 29 February 2024 and you’ll qualify for a tax break.

We issue Section 18A tax certificates for all donations made to Daily Maverick. These can be presented to SARS for tax relief.

Make your donation today

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options