NEW YORK • Dove's new advertising campaign just does not wash, irate consumers said.
The ire-inducing advertisement - a static compilation of four photos - was released last Saturday.
The first frame shows a dark-skinned woman in what appears to be a bathroom, a bottle of Dove body wash in the lower right-hand corner of the picture. In subsequent frames, the woman reaches down and lifts up her shirt to reveal a smiling white woman.
Offended Dove users erupted and the company quickly apologised.
But the two-sentence Twitter note and a slightly longer message on Facebook left it unclear what exactly the advertisement was trying to convey. The vacuum of information was filled by people on social media who peppered the company with comments and rhetorical questions, none of them good.
Was Dove saying that inside every black woman is a smiling red-headed white woman?
Was Dove invoking the centuries-old stereotype that black is dirty and white is pure?
Or that black skin can or should be cleansed away?
And perhaps the biggest question of all: Did Dove really believe that the advertisement would make more people of colour want to buy its products?
"What exactly were you all going for?" one Dove consumer asked on the company's Facebook page.
"What was the mark ... I mean anyone with eyes can see how offensive this is. Not one person on your staff objected to this? Wow. Will not be buying your products anymore."
Others wondered whether the problem was a lack of diversity at Dove. They pointed to historical examples of racist advertisements about soap so good that it apparently washes the melanin out of the skin.
Such missteps are not limited to the 60-year-old maker of soaps and body washes. Earlier this year, German skincare company Nivea was slammed for a deodorant advertisement that said "White Is Purity".
Still, this weekend's slip-up was a curious one for Dove, which has a 13-year-old marketing campaign centred on rejecting standard notions of beauty in its commercials.
On its website, it touts the Real Beauty Pledge, a vow to feature "real women of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, hair colour, type or style".
It recently paid Shonda Rhimes to make mini films celebrating the theme. The producer and screenwriter has created several TV shows that feature minority women as lead characters.
But Dove's marketing campaign has also been criticised by people who believe that feminism and women's empowerment should not be used as marketing tools to persuade people to buy shower foam.
The ethics of feminism-centred marketing campaigns aside, Saturday's advertisement was not the first time Dove's users felt that it had missed the mark.
In May, the company released six limited-edition bottles of body wash in British markets - some squat and curvy, some tall and lean - that were meant to represent variations of the female form.
It advertised the bottles using the phrase "beauty breaks the mould", but online commentators said the idea was ridiculous.