Codebreaking: Nivea’s “Re-civilize Yourself”

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Is this ad racist?

Lots of people sure think it is, and it may be, but it appears everyone missed the true focus of the ad.

The ad shows a clean cut black man throwing an afro black head– we can assume it is his own head. And people seem to have jumped on that as a racist message, e.g. rejecting the natural hair of a black man.

But black men, according to Nivea’s brand messaging, are inherently uncivilized and can only become civilized if they forsake what comes out of their hair follicles naturally.

Wrong, it doesn’t say that at all.

The ad doesn’t say “Civilize Yourself”, it says “Re-Civilize Yourself” and in case the emphasis was lost on anyone the ad even italicizes the “Re-Civilize.” This means that the black man in question wasn’t inherently uncivilized, he was civilized already– the danger lies in regressing.

What no one thought worth mentioning is that the ad appeared in Esquire: average age 45. The byline of Esquire Magazine should be: “How To Avoid Growing Old, Because It Blows.” Every cover girl will be slutty (including Tina Fey, if such a thing is possible) and every guy will be in a jacket.

esquire covers

Every cover of Esquire since

No teens here, these are Gen Xers in a last ditch attempt to appear culturally relevant. Maybe brown shoes (paired with a brown belt, of course) would help.

Also important, since we are talking about a black man rejecting afro heads, is the simple fact that every cover of Esquire since 2005 has been of a white person except Obama (twice; one was a the Hope poster) and Denzel (who appeared in a shot with 3 white people.) This is a magazine for white people, not black people, and white people who want to be classy, strong, and masculine. I grant you that this will fail, but it is what they want nonetheless. The only black people who get to appear on/in Esquire appeal to whites, i.e. they are classy, strong, and masculine. That’s what whites want.

Whether or not afros are natural is as immaterial as whether black women should straighten their hair or not, i.e. it isn’t the point of the ad. Ads don’t sell products only, they sell aspirational images, and this ad isn’t selling a product by Nivea, it is selling the black guy. The ad is for white people, and they can’t relate to the afro but they can relate to/wish for the masculinity of the black man throwing the head. That guy is an aspirational image for them. That guy is who they’d like to emulate, and that’s why he’s in there.

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15 Responses to Codebreaking: Nivea’s “Re-civilize Yourself”

  1. stiffbreeze says:

    Those who want to see it as racist will see it as so; those who don’t want to see it as racist will also see it as so.

    From the ad agency’s perspective, use a white person here and there’s little controversy, which isn’t effective in a viral marketing sense. Use a black person, manufacture a light controversy that won’t hurt the brand, and you get pats on the back at the next client meeting.

    So I think the question of whether the ad is racist or not is in the eye of the viewer. But perhaps an extension to the question would be whether using racially provocative advertising is or is not racist? ( Is sexually provocative advertising sexist?)

  2. FrederickMercury says:

    … why would this be racist?

  3. MarcusB says:

    Didn’t really have time to judge for myself because I read the question and saw the picture sort of at the same time. And now I don’t know.

    The head that the black dude is tossing is ambiguous too. You can’t really tell if that’s an afro or not, etc.

  4. xiphoidmaneuver says:

    Ads aren’t racist – racist is a characteristic of social systems and of people.

    An ad can be racially offensive. When “racially offensive” or “racially insensitive” are conflated with “racist” the worst aspects of racism are out of mind.

    Wherever a company’s good standing on race relations is determined primarily by its advertising image has been elevated over substance. Dealing with substance however takes work.

  5. max says:

    Not racist, but pretty creepy. To me it looks like he chopped off somebody’s head and is getting ready to chuck it. That combined with the word “re-civilize” is disturbing to me.

  6. Arno says:

    I assumed he was throwing away his old appearance, which doesn’t jive with the two comments that interpreted it as throwing away a strangers head. The late 20’s guy is throwing away the scraggly, irresponsible appearance of his youth: making a clean break from his youth to become a stand up member of society.
    The add is certainly an abusive appeal to identity and suggests that being an adult is a simple as putting on a new mask, but the way I read it, there wouldn’t be much change if the man were a different ethnicity (or even gender?).

    Actually, considering the pale, sterile surroundings of the add, I’d say that black skin makes him stand out from the background: being black is an indication that he isn’t just another generic cog in an over-processed world. An add agency might think a shortcut like that would speak to all sorts of readers without having to add more cluttering imagery to identify the man as earnest, hardworking, virile, or what have you.

    • Arno says:

      When I first looked at the post nothing below the Nivea add loaded for some reason. That what I wrote doesn’t blatantly contradict Alone is a happy coincidence I guess.

  7. Dave Pinsen says:

    This one seems so obvious, I’m surprised you felt the need to explicate it.

  8. Comus says:

    All very well TLP, but my eye caught immediately the catch phrase “Look like you give a damn”. Which is rather easily read into your argument about the X-gen focus group. The term “Give a damn!” would have, in my opinion, been more effective, but it would have changed the demands of the message. You can keep doing what you’ve always done, just look like you give a damn. Look civilised, remain barbarian. The focus is on appearances, not on content.

    Also, when this ad is read against the demographic it aims at, one can see that there probably aren’t many afro-haired, thick-bearded Esquire-readers about. The aim is not to lure in nivea face cream -needing Esquire readers, but to provoke a sense of superiority. We are not un-civilised, we can remain civilised by using this product. Even though, due to marital problems, the economic downfall, health issues, everything appears to have gone to shit, I am still civilised. This ad effectively creates the borders where the readers want them to be. Losing your job, beating your wife, whatever, does not affect your civilness, appearances do. Control that and all is permitted.

  9. robotslave says:

    I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, that if an ad for Men’s Beauty Products isn’t a little edgy and provocative, then perhaps the average Esquire reader will just glance at it, assume it’s for the gays, and flip the page. He definitely won’t mention it to his blogger friends, that’s for sure.

    Racism sells, even to the avowed anti-racist: you use it, or just add a little artificial racism flavoring, in order to get his (precious, life-giving) attention.

  10. suicism says:

    My initial response to this ad was flat out confusion. Preppy athletic dude playing discus with a severed head? Okay then.

    I think the racism angle is a small and unnecessary part of the broader marketing strategy. The ad is promising, when you get down to it, a paradoxical impossible–savagery and civility–and a dark-skinned man more readily evokes both extremes. It’s the wet-dream of red-blooded male, no? It’s the masculine equivalent of the virgin / sex-kitten mixed message that women are drowning in. You too, sir, can be both eminently and unimpeachably civilized and (grr) still a terrifying, head-hurtling brute. It’s the ultimate, and necessarily unobtainable, fantasy. Bravo, Nivea ad team. Well done.

    (And after looking at it a bit longer, the image reminds me, oddly, of David and Goliath. This might have more to do with of some chidhood memory that combined David’s throwing of the sling with his later hoisting of Goliath’s head, and / or the fact that it’s not every day that one runs into photos of sweatless and pretty men holding decapitated heads, that it does any conscious or unconscious referring on Nivea’s part, but still.)

  11. CubaLibre says:

    “What no one thought worth mentioning is that the ad appeared in Esquire: average age 45. ”

    I’m not sure how much hay can be made these days out of targeted advertising. Certainly it can say something about the motives of the advertising company. But look: this very blog (and so many others who have responded to the “controversy”) proves that no ad is truly targeted any more. The internet has disseminated this ad far beyond its original audience, so much so that it’s kind of silly to say, or at least to assume, that this ad is “for Esquire readers.” Whether that’s the truly devious meta-plan of the ad company or just the fallout of 40something execs being unable to respond to advancing technology (they’re advertising in print for god’s sake), it means that analyses that depend on the constituency of the target market aren’t as convincing.

  12. jaime omar yassin says:

    “Wrong, it doesn’t say that at all.”

    I just hope that wasn’t expressed with irony.

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