Marketing Misstep: Nivea Pulls Ad That Sparked Racial Controversy

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According to Nivea, the shaggy, disheveled look is out. But in an attempt to relay that message, the skincare brand is in the midst of a public-relations blunder for releasing an ad that many believed was racist.

The contentious print ad, which appeared in the September issue of Esquire, shows a well-groomed black man about to toss what looks like a rubber mask with scruffy facial hair and a large afro. The short-haired model, who is clean-shaven and wearing preppy casual Friday attire, sharply contrasts his former, pre-Nivea-using symbolic self. The text emblazoned over the model: RE-CIVILIZE YOURSELF.

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The text in particular has been deemed insensitive and racist, as the idea of being “uncivilized” has historically been associated with African Americans, Africans, and pretty much anyone who isn’t white, Western or “first world.”

The ad, which is part of Nivea for Men’s “Look Like You Give a Damn” campaign, was heavily criticized: The “message couldn’t be clearer: natural hair on a black man isn’t a style preference or a nod to afrocentrism–it’s straight-up uncivilized,” wrote GOOD’s Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Public outrage ensued, especially on Twitter, which resulted in a prompt apology by Nivea.

Beiersdorf AG, the parent company of Nivea, released the following statement to CNN: “After realizing that this ad is misleading, it was immediately withdrawn.” The apology also emphasized that Nivea values and represents “diversity, tolerance, and equal opportunity.” Nivea USA also posted on its Facebook page: “This ad was inappropriate and offensive. It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again.”

The new marketing campaign includes many variations of this ad, including one that features a white male model holding an even creepier looking rubber head. But the text in that version reads: SIN CITY ISN’T AN EXCUSE TO LOOK LIKE HELL. No other ad, other than the one featuring the black model, refers to the term “civilize.”

One of the latest models for Nivea cosmetics is recording artist Rihanna, and some are calling for the singer to sever her contract.

Kai Ma is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @Kai_Ma or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.