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Stereotypes of Masculinity, Femininity, and Racism in Commercialized Products


Unilever is a multinational consumer goods company based in London, England, and Rotterdam, Netherlands. It was founded in 1929 through the merger of British soap maker Lever Brothers and Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie. Today, Unilever is one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world, with a portfolio of over 400 brands, including household names such as Dove, Hellmann’s, Lipton, and Knorr (Unilever, 2023). In October 2017, the company faced backlash over an advertisement for its brand-Dove, that was deemed racist and prompted widespread social media uproar. Unilever’s apology for the ad was not surprising given its history of similar missteps in judgment. Consequently, this case analysis provides an opportunity to explore critical management considerations by highlighting the role of stereotypes of masculinity, femininity, and racism in commercialized products.


The 2017 Dove soap advertisement featured a series of images that showed a black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman, then removing her shirt to reveal an Asian woman (Humphries-Kil, 2019). The ad was intended to convey the message that Dove soap is gentle and nourishing enough for all skin types. However, many perceived it as perpetuating harmful and racist stereotypes about beauty and skin color. The reaction to the ad was both expected and shocking because it highlights the persistence of racist stereotypes and the importance of cultural sensitivity in advertising (Humphries-Kil, 2019). On the one hand, it is unsurprising that the ad was met with widespread criticism, given the history of harmful and stereotypical representations of people of color in the media.

On the other hand, it is shocking that a prominent and well-respected company like Unilever would produce an advertisement that perpetuates such harmful messages. In response to the public outcry, Unilever issued an apology and pulled the ad from circulation. The company acknowledged that the ad had missed the mark and was committed to promoting diversity and inclusivity in its marketing campaigns.

Dissect the Case from a Learning Theory Lens

From a Classical Conditioning perspective, the advertisement’s depiction of a black woman turning into a white woman may have unconsciously triggered a negative association in the viewers’ minds (Staddon, 2016). This type of advertisement could have perpetuated harmful stereotypes and perpetuated the notion that lighter skin is superior to darker skin. Based on the Operant Conditioning theory, the public’s reaction to the ad can be seen as a form of reinforcement for companies to be more culturally sensitive and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes in their advertisements (Cherry, 2019). The negative response to the ad, including the product boycott, was a punishment for Unilever’s actions, causing the company to apologize and pull the ad.

On the other hand, the advertisement was likely created by a group of individuals unaware of the potential harm it could cause based on the Social Learning Theory (Staddon, 2016). This lack of awareness could be due to a lack of diversity in the decision-making process and implicit biases. The public’s reaction to the ad serves as a model for others to learn from, demonstrating the importance of considering the cultural implications of advertisements and the need for diverse perspectives in the decision-making process.

How did the advertisement come to be

The 2017 Dove soap advertisement was created as part of a more extensive marketing campaign. The advertisement was designed to showcase Dove’s products’ versatility and ability to work for all skin types (Humphries-Kil, 2019). The advertisement intended to demonstrate that women of different ethnicities could use Dove’s products. However, the message was received as culturally insensitive and perpetuated harmful racial stereotypes. The advertisement was likely created through creative brainstorming, market research, and testing. However, it needs to be clarified why the team responsible for the advertisement did not consider the cultural implications of the message and image.

Why Was the Ad Questionable Content and Message Unnoticed

The reason why the questionable content and message of the 2017 Dove soap advertisement went unnoticed can be attributed to a few factors. The team responsible for creating the advertisement lacked diversity, which could have led to a lack of cultural sensitivity and understanding. Furthermore, the team responsible for creating the advertisement may have felt confident in their creative process and felt the message was positive and inclusive. They may not have considered the potential negative impact of the message and image. This blind spot in the creative process and decision-making went unnoticed due to insufficient review processes to identify potential cultural sensitivity issues with the advertisement. This could have led to the advertisement being approved without anyone noticing its questionable content and message. Additionally, the team responsible for creating the advertisement may have limited exposure to diverse perspectives, which could have impacted their understanding of the cultural implications of the message and image.

What lessons were learned

The 2017 Dove soap advertisement and its subsequent reaction from the public present several important lessons for companies and marketers. Companies need to be aware of the cultural implications of their advertisements and the potential harm they may cause. They must take a culturally sensitive approach when creating advertisements and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and messages. Furthermore, Including diverse perspectives in the decision-making process can help prevent controversial advertisements from being created. Companies should strive to create a diverse and inclusive workplace to ensure that all perspectives are considered.

On the other hand, the public’s reaction to the Dove soap advertisement serves as a reminder of the power of consumer feedback. Companies need to be aware that their advertisements can significantly impact their reputation and must consider consumer feedback when creating them. Lastly, companies must be aware of their advertisements’ historical and cultural context and their impact on different populations. They must be mindful of the messages they send and their impact on their target audience. By recognizing these lessons, companies can take steps to create culturally sensitive and responsible advertisements and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and messages in their marketing efforts.

How Unilever Can institutionalize this Knowledge

To institutionalize the lessons learned from the 2017 Dove soap advertisement, Unilever can implement diversity and inclusivity training programs for its employees to raise awareness. Raising awareness of the importance of cultural sensitivity and the potential harm of perpetuating harmful stereotypes is vital. Furthermore, Unilever should include diverse perspectives in its decision-making processes by creating a diverse and inclusive workplace to ensure that diverse perspectives are represented and considered in its advertising and marketing efforts. Additionally, it should partner with organizations that promote diversity and inclusivity in advertising and marketing to gain access to a broader range of perspectives and insights. This should be supported by research and development of culturally sensitive products and for different skin types to create culturally sensitive advertisements and represent the diverse populations they serve. Most importantly, it should develop internal review processes such as regular audits of its advertisements and feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders. This will ensure that all advertisements are culturally sensitive and free from harmful stereotypes and messages.


In conclusion, the 2017 Dove soap advertisement and Unilever’s apology are valuable lessons in cultural sensitivity and understanding when creating and distributing advertisements. This case offers a unique opportunity for organizations to reflect on their internal processes, from idea generation to final approval, to ensure that their advertisements align with their values and do not perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Moreover, the case highlights the need for organizations to have robust diversity and inclusion policies and practices that promote cultural sensitivity and understanding. Unilever’s apology shows that the company recognizes the importance of taking responsibility for its actions and avoiding similar mistakes in the future. Organizations can learn from Unilever’s experience by instituting regular training programs, seeking input from diverse employees, and conducting regular cultural sensitivity checks. By doing so, they can ensure that they create and distribute advertisements that accurately represent and celebrate the diverse communities they serve.


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Dooley, K. (2017). Simulation research methods. The Blackwell companion to organizations, 829-848. Retrieved from

Cherry, K. (2019). What is operant conditioning and how does it work. How reinforcement and punishment modify behavior. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from

Humphries-Kil, M. (2019). Unilever and Leadership: Gender, Race, and Classification in Corporate Globalisation. In SAGE Business Cases. SAGE Publications: SAGE Business Cases Originals. DOI:

Staddon, J. E. R. (2016). Adaptive behavior and learning. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Uniliver, (2023). Our brands. Retrieved from


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