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The Nivea ad: Is it racist? Yes, it is. And more.

Good Magazine‘s associate editor Nona Willis Aronowitz raised excellent questions in her August 18 post, Nivea’s Racist Ad “Re-civilizes” a Black Man. Part of Nivea’s “Look Like You Give A Damn” skin care for men campaign, it’s the only ad that features a black man. It’s also the only one where the added words, “Re-Civilize Yourself,” jump out at the viewer.


To Nivea‘s credit, the company pulled the ad, seemingly within hours (see the company’s apology on Facebook).

Hang on, let’s re-examine that ad before it slips away…

If the words weren’t inflammatory enough (a black man is admonished to “re-civilize” himself), it’s actually the image itself that’s more profoundly disturbing. How come? And how is it a problem of black and/or white representation?

There is a white man in the same ad campaign:


If there’s a black guy and a white guy in the campaign, how are they different? Why do I think the black man is shown in unjustifiably (eg., racist) negative terms?

Two ads

Aronowitz’s article references this Facebook page, here, which was updated to show that Nivea had two ads with the “re-civilize yourself” command: one for a black man and one for a white man. While the black man is holding what looks like a head with an Afro hairstyle, the white man holds a head with unkempt “caveman” hair – so perhaps the intention was to show both men with “pre-civilized” styles.

However, an Afro hairstyle is natural to a type of hair (extremely curly) and, unlike a “pre-civilized” caveman look, it’s actually a style choice that’s linked to black pride.

Even if we cut Nivea some slack and say, “Sure, they were just suggesting a caveman look for both, not intending to slag black pride” (which isn’t an unreasonable assumption at all), why are these images still plain wrong?


My answer derives from art history. When I saw Nivea’s ad with the black man, my first association was with a painting by Francisco Goya, Cannibals Savoring Human Remains, painted during a dark period in Goya’s life and in Spain’s history (short Youtube film about Goya here). Cannibalism is arguably a nadir in human behavior – not the sort of thing anyone can make relativistic excuses for. In fairy-tales, cannibalism scares little children. In grown-up media (“entertainment” and news), slasher movies and real-life psychopaths terrorize adult imaginations with the unfathomable darkness of eating human flesh for pleasure.

Goya nailed it with this painting of cannibals, which must be seen as part of a series of images Goya made (including depictions of bandits, rapists, brigands, soldiers, religious Inquisitors, and subjects from mythology) that represent human depravity:


First, note that these cannibals are white. Depravity knows no “racial” markers. Then, note that the cannibal’s right (raised) hand holds a severed hand, while his left hand, lowered, holds the object featured in Nivea’s ad: a human head.

Goya came to my mind when I saw that ad

Sure, you might say, “You thought of Goya because of your art history training.”

But is that really so? What if Goya merely gave pictorial form to scary stories we somehow are familiar with, whether through fairy-tales or some kind of atavistic osmosis connected to our “pre-civilized” brains?

For me, in other words, the black man in Nivea’s ad was associated with cannibalism. In terms of negative racist allusion, it couldn’t possibly get any worse than that.

It couldn’t possibly get any worse than that …or could it?

So what about the white man, who is also holding a head?

Well, just consider the different physical attitudes expressed by the two men. Both are undeniably handsome and attractive. The black man looks athletic, as though he’s about to throw a discus at the Olympics. In that sense, he looks very classical, a veritable Discobolus.


But wait!

He’s not going to toss a discus, he’s going to toss a human head.

What’s that all about? Who would toss a human head around as if it were a sports instrument?

Oh, right… A cannibal, maybe?

In other words, there’s a profound disconnect between the man’s pose and the object he’s holding.

Black guys are athletes, white guys stand around and ponder…

As for the white man, his look also suggests a classical pose, albeit a less action-oriented and more cerebration-oriented one. Should we believe that black men are “naturally” athletic, while white men tend toward reasoning? Hmm…

Our white man seems modeled on Michelangelo’s David:


But hang on! Wouldn’t holding a decapitated head destroy that allusion?

Well, not exactly. Michelangelo’s sculpture shows David as he’s preparing to deliver the fatal blow to Goliath. We may be excused for forgetting that David not only kills Goliath, but also decapitates him.

So, in alluding to David, let’s reference another painter, Caravaggio. His David with the Head of Goliath (below) expresses what might be called an altruistic nobility in killing another person:


David is profoundly affected, as a reasoning being, by his act. He’s no athlete, no Discobolus, no mere performer. He’s a thinker. His act was violent, but he thinks about it.


Violence (or even plain old vehemence) is parsed differently, depending on what skin color you have in mind…

The two decapitations – the white Nivea man’s head and Caravaggio’s head of Goliath – even appear similar, while the black Nivea man’s head has more pronounced tribal mask features …which also depersonalizes it.

The black man is given the pose of a classical Discobolus, but handed a fully inappropriate object (a head) to toss. This actually heightens the taboo (against murder) and strengthens  the allusion to something quite depraved (say, cannibalism for sport or pleasure). The white man is given the pose of a noble, classical actor, David from the Old Testament. His pose is in a style reminiscent of Michelangelo. And he holds the severed head like Caravaggio’s David holds the head of Goliath. There are two very different levels of approach – and, possibly, respect – embodied in the two images.

Yes, the Nivea ad for the black man is disturbing and it’s a multifaceted racial put-down. The ad for the white man, on the other hand, blends in with much of the noble/ superior posing that passes for attention-getting in advertising. Both are cliches.


1 Comment

  1. Maybe because I am white I am somewhat blind when it comes to this ad, but I didn’t see the racism as much as I saw what someone on your FB page said about “castration.” I didn’t see anything “noble” attention getting in the ad with the white guy. Just as I don’t see the “noble” aspect in Caravaggio — I always found him very scary.

    But I see your point with the illustrations.I guess I am much too distracted these days to pick up on such subtle cues. On the other hand, I am also too distracted for advertising to work on me in general. I have been a very bad shopper….

    Comment by maria — August 21, 2011 #

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