Because you're not worth it. Was L'Oreal right to drop Munroe Bergdorf?
You can't have missed the uproar over the past week over comments made by Munroe Bergdorf on Facebook in response to Charlottesville. They were leaked to the Daily Mail and have now resulted in her sacking as a L'Oreal Brand Ambassador.
How apt that I am reading Reni Eddo-Lodge's "Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race" at the time the debate has sparked. To understand if the structure and system we live in is inherently bias we should look to the statistics.
Borrowed from an article by Katherine Craig in the Guardian today titled "My fellow white people: if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem", we see "you’re six times more likely to get stopped by the police if you’re black. Unemployment rates are twice as high for ethnic minorities than for white people. Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems and experience discrimination in accessing mental health crisis care. People from BAME groups are more likely to experience homelessness, and the number of hate crimes in the UK doubled this year". Some will argue that this is of their own doing, but being BAME, I have first hand experience of these statistics in my immediate circle and as someone who is seemingly well integrated / adjusted / assimilated (depending on who's judging) I can say that it isn't the fault of minority communities alone that the statistics paint this picture.
We could go on about what Munroe's comments mean for broader society, but we're in the business of advertising and marketing and so was it right that L'Oreal dropped her from a campaign supporting diversity?
If brands are going to put different faces behind their campaigns then they have to take everything that comes with it. For a person of colour who has gained a position of power to ignore the inherent biases in the system or to not speak out about them means they are abusing their privilege and their past. Personal experience has shown me they will face backlash from their own community of becoming a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) or an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside). If Ed Skrein, a white actor, can speak out about racism and gain praise for not wanting to play an Asian character, why can't a person of colour do the same? You might say it's because a person of colour would never have the privilege of playing a white role in the first place. That's the bias Munroe is trying to highlight.
Working with a brand ambassador can be a great way to show the world what you stand for by association. But choosing a brand ambassador in today's age has become more complicated simply because society has morphed beyond recognition. If someone has risen as an activist, their social feed is more than likely to contain some contentious tweets and posts that have got them noticed. Brands and their leaders need to wake up (or in the current parlance, 'be woke') to this and do thorough due diligence. In an interview at the Digiday Brand Summit Germany in Berlin this year, Adrien Koskas, L'Oreal Paris UK's general manager said "They [influencers] can give back, and they have a purpose.” If that purpose is being who they are and standing up as an activist, then brands need to be prepared to face criticism, warts and all.
Diversity and inclusion is a huge commitment for any business and in an age where businesses are able to effect change better than politicians and so any business leader needs to ask themselves:
- Before you talk about diversity externally, do your people internally believe it?
- Does your company look and feel diverse?
- Is diversity embodied by your leadership?
For beauty brand L'Oreal, diversity and inclusion is proving ugly business. The death threats and vile abuse, exacerbated by appearances on Good Morning Britain as seen above (photo credit: ITV), shows the huge weight brands carry today. If L'Oreal hadn't dropped her, the support from both the BAME and LGBT communities could have been game changing. Unfortunately what we're seeing is that authenticity is only really permissible if it aligns with brand values. We should be encouraged to explore who is coming up with those values in the first place.
Sadly as there are very few senior marketers who are LGBT or people of colour (let alone both) the nuance that comes with having an intersectional identity will be very hard to understand. Back to the stats - only 12% of those working in IPA member agencies had a black, Asian or minority-ethnic background. Unfortunately stats on senior in-house marketers' diversity are harder to come by. In part the lack of 'diverse' senior marketers is because BAME overvalue traditional careers such as accounting and medicine (which is linked with roots of economic migration at least for the Asian community and the longing of stability) but the bigger area to explore is what impact this lack of diversity has on the campaigns we see. Using a brand ambassador cannot be a shiny toy to distract from what's going on inside the business.
In the aforementioned interview Koskas said “Behind this mythical tagline ‘Because you’re worth it’ is a very strong value. We believe that everyone is perfect, wherever you are and wherever you’re from. We see influencers as a way to bring that statement to life, and really showcase a different face of beauty — much more inclusive, diverse and connected with our consumers".
By dropping Munroe, L'Oreal has not given credit to the feeling that many BAME people have about structural bias that is leading to a plethora of stories today. We see it in the coverage of the recent 70th anniversary of partition of India, in the ever ongoing debate on diversity in our industry and in books such as Reni Eddo-Lodges'. This was an opportunity to go into that debate with a firm opinion and lead a conversation around structural biases in how we look.
What L'Oreal has said, quite bluntly, is "because you're not worth it". I'll leave you to read through the reply to L'Oreal's tweet and decide for yourself.