An Introduction to NIVEA and its History

NIVEA is a German beauty product and personal care company that was founded in 1911 to market and sell a new, recently-patented skin cream that demographically targeted white women. The specific benefits of their breakout product, “Eucerin,” were vaguely defined and remain unclear, but the moisturizer gained enough popularity throughout Europe and parts of the United States to allow its proprietors to expand the scopes of their business. NIVEA fully rebranded themselves in 1958, in an attempt to step away from their reputation as simply the vender of their flagship product, and transformed themselves into a larger figure in the skincare industry by introducing various kinds of sunscreen and specialized products for children — while still maintaining a marketing scheme that brazenly appealed to idealized notions of white femininity.

Less than 30 years later, NIVEA further reframed their brand to appeal more widely to the global market that they sought to engage with. And so, in 1986, they sparked a self-proclaimed “Revolution in Skincare” by choosing to encompass men’s skincare needs into their mission statement: “No longer would men have to use products that belonged to their wives, sisters or mothers. Now they could use NIVEA for Men, a range of skincare products just for them.”

Although this shift in their targeted demographic widened the scope from exclusively appealing to white women to include white men as well, NIVEA’s marketing antics are far from sensitive and accepting — after all, the name “NIVEA” stems from the Latin word “niveus,” which translates to “snow-white.” The two ad campaigns we will be analyzing for our project both revolve around Nivea’s recent perpetuation of and direct appeal to Westernized, white-centered, ethnocentric projections of beauty and health. Up until August of 2011, Nivea’s problematic tendencies were poorly-veiled by a complete lack of engagement with any notion of ethnic inclusivity, which becomes abundantly evident after merely a brief skim through the history of their advertisements: sampled from 1911, 1935, 1964, and 1992, respectively.

But given the heightened awareness to widespread systemic injustice that the 21st century saw, and with a proportionately growing attention paid to the pervasive corporate exclusion of minorities in the beauty industry, NIVEA eventually decided to attempt to venture into the world of intersectionality. Alas, although one of their concluding points in the autobiographical section of their website states “For 100 YEARS we have created skincare products which means NIVEA understands skin like no one else, for any person, male or female and for any skin type – NIVEA for life,” it is ultimately unsurprising that the company’s first few misguided forays into ethnic inclusivity were massive failures, complete with extremely telling cultural implications.

“White is Purity”

This advertisement was posted one of NIVEA’s Facebook pages on April 2nd of the previous year, and was sponsoring a new line of deodorant titled “Invisible: For Black and White.” According to the campaign, this is a new product that is specifically designed to prevent the discoloration of the customer’s clothes through excessive sweat,  Although the ad was planned to have a full-print launch in the Middle East (with a focus on Iran), the plug was pulled only two days after the company posted this ad on Middle-East Facebook due to the severe backlash it received, primarily for its highly problematic tagline.

When regarding this ad, immediately the consumer’s eye is drawn to the thesis behind the product campaign: “White is Purity.” This kind of statement falls directly into Mary Douglass’ anthropological theory laid out in her magnum opus, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Essentially, the main implications of an association of whiteness with the conceptual notion of purity is twofold; which is to assert caucasian superiority on both an ethically abstract basis (e.g. to be morally pure and therefore inherently righteous) and a distinctive physical one (e.g. to not be tainted by dirt, or any any projected impurity). That is to say that the dichotomy consciously proposed by NIVEA serves not just to distinguish and separate blackness from whiteness, but to define whiteness itself by its lack of purity, thereby directly categorizing blackness not only as impure, but also as a direct threat to the purity of whiteness — or as they put it themselves, “…protection that keeps black clothes black and white clothes white for longer.”

Although the bolded, all-caps mantra that’s centralized in the advertisement is clearly emblematic of a severely prejudiced worldview, the bigoted implications don’t end there. The active distinction between white and black is also manifested in the literal lack of darkness in the advertisement: white clothes, white sheets, white window, off-white wall, bright yellow blanket, white sky, etc. Although the model’s skin is not directly revealed to her audience, the hairstyle she’s dressed up in evokes an identifiably anglo-saxon image, perfectly projecting her as the standard of whiteness and purity that NIVEA wants to sell. This Douglass-esque otherization and stigmatization of marginalized sub-cultural groups is almost perfectly and painfully evident in the caption posted to Facebook, introducing the ad, “Keep it clean, keep bright. Don’t let anything ruin it, #Invisible.” By using words like “clean,” “bright,” and “ruin”, and by introducing the officially undefined concept of “it,” NIVEA is stapling abstract standards of health and beauty onto a white-contained label, especially after fully establishing the threat and foreignness of blackness. 

NIVEA rolled back the entire campaign within two days of sharing this advertisement, as it was immediately faced with not only a flood of low-level public criticism, but also massive big-name media attention as well (New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and many more). They released an official apology that reads as follows: “That image was inappropriate and not reflective of our values as a company. We deeply apologize for that and have removed the post. Diversity and inclusivity are crucial values of NIVEA. We take pride in creating products that promote beauty in all forms. Discrimination of any kind is simply not acceptable to us as a company, as employees, or as individuals.” They also diligently responded directly to individuals who called attention to their problematic rhetoric with similarly worded apologies. 

Despite this myriad of socio-politically acceptable regret and carefully worded apologies, the disturbing underlying messages of the Invisible Deodorant ad were not lost on consumers. The advertisement was not only met with vehement disapproval from all popular media outlets and most online social presence, but was also avidly embraced by a small amount of far-right (or alt-right) activists. A relatively popular white supremacist group posted this statement on NIVEA’s Facebook page shortly after the ad was launched: “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.”

Although this advertising campaign is flagrant and offensive, it shouldn’t come across as shocking or unprecedented when contextualized in its cultural setting. Ultimately, as Douglass argues, these moments are ones that can (and should) be used to analyze a broad set of cultural implications, rather than giving into the temptation of only focusing on the isolated event itself. NIVEA’s Invisible Deodorant campaign is clearly a product of a cultural climate that is saturated with deeply prejudiced definitions of beauty and purity, to name only a few examples. Not only that, but the globalization of Western standards of attractiveness is a potent manifestation of the ethnocentric colonialist antics that have defined the culture’s evolution and warped its self-perception. Thus, even though the historically racist alt-right political party’s support for the ad campaign is deeply disturbing, it can be fully characterized as yet another exemplification of our culture’s prejudiced tendencies.

The fact that this product line was targeting a non-white and non-Western cultural climate is no coincidence; the globalization of our economic standards allows us to commodify and profit off of the beauty standards that we also project onto the communities we exploit. In essence, the fundamentally problematic implications of NIVEA’s recent advertising blunders are not indicative of a newly-spawned worldview. Their products and advertisements have always exhibited a clearly racist rhetoric, instead the change in reception that these ads have faced is a result of a cultural situation that’s evolving faster than NIVEA is.

Looking Like You Give A Damn: Crafting Masculinities

In 2011 Nivea launched their “Look Like You Give a Damn” campaign in the September issue of Esquire, an American men’s lifestyle magazine. The advertisements were geared towards generating a new consumer base to sell their line of ‘Nivea Men’ grooming and skincare products. Assumptions about binary gender roles and identities are immediately apparent in the tagline, which assumes that men in general can’t be bothered with appearances. In contrast to advertisements for ‘female’ products, which stress beauty ideals or luxury, this advertisement assumes the posture of wrangling men into the ‘bare minimum’. Products for the female body are often cast as a means of attracting those of the opposite sex, or as ways of improving inadequate or flawed aspects of their bodies. Here, for men, products identical to those in the women’s line are instead the means to self-realization, professionalism, and status- as depicted in the image below. Adequate care of the self, ‘giving a damn’, here looks like a clean-shaven face, short hair, and a suit. Gazes directed outwards, and walking towards the viewer, portray confidence and power, while the professional attire inscribes the models within the realm of work and suggests an upper-class position or ideal success. If you don’t use Nivea, or cannot afford to look like this, the ad suggests, you must simply not care enough- and that’s not the right look for the refined, cosmopolitan, capitalist man. To care goes beyond the body, it is to curate the proper subject.

Other images from the campaign, however, suggest that giving a damn may not look the same or hold similar prospects for all men.

This pair of ads was subject to controversy and eventually led to Nivea retracting the campaign. While the product advertised and the general trope of unmasking are the same between the two ads, the difference in the text is what prompted backlash and was the main target of angry social media users. The slogan “Re-civilize yourself” was only used in this ad, with a black model, and appears in no other images or media in the campaign.

The first image’s text is especially charged in the context of racial politics in the United States. The black man is pictured with his previous, presumably uncivilized, self in his hands, preparing to throw it away. This posture, the tight shirt which emphasizes muscles in the arms, and the angry expression on the head’s face all recall the racial stereotype of the ‘mandingo’ – the oversexed, aggressive, primal by nature, African American male.

What was shed along with this mask was a characteristic afro and beard, attributes of a supposedly ‘uncivilized existence’. Natural hair, in the history of racial prejudice in the United States, has been both a point of contention (battles in the workplace to change black natural hairstyles which are ‘unprofessional’, for instance) and a symbol of black pride and resistance against Eurocentric beauty standards. The Afro is a charged cultural icon which is already involved in contests of ‘civilization’ in a way the second image’s long hair and beard are not. By connecting the destruction/removal of the afro with “re-civilizing”, the ad echoes this long history, and implies that African American culture is itself outside of civilization. The model’s positioning in what appears to be a parking lot, a mark of societal infrastructure, is his return to such a world now that he is sufficiently civil. The frame and the gaze of the viewer are in line with his person. This placement is not ‘exemplary’ in the same way as the elevated second image, it is a banal or everyday location. Unlike the white advertisement, the black model’s use of these products has marked a subtle return to a more basic level of humanity.

In contrast, the variation with the white model suggests a very different social position. To begin with, the subject is placed so that the viewer appears to be looking up at him, where he stands seemingly on the edge of a wall or building in the sky, a god-like position. In contrast to the more casual grey sweater, surely designed to emphasize crafting a less threatening black-body, the white model wears a full suit. The face he holds in his hands is not angry, but nearly comic with a large gaping mouth and eyes similar to the characteristic theater symbol. Additionally, rather than an aggressive posture of throwing the mask, he stands tall and straight, feet spread in a dominant pose, yet his arms are relaxed. He is not threatening, but he is also not threatened- the foot slightly over the edge is enough to signal his daring will.

The caption echoes these differences and reads “Sin City isn’t an excuse to look like hell”. Sin City, Las Vegas, in contrast to the empty parking lot, is a busy and populated locale which symbolizes sexuality, wealth, luxury, and the chance to make it big. This is a sanctioned space in which to ‘let oneself go’, but the ad suggests that on top of this already privileged position in the scene of the city, a man can distinguish himself through his appearance.

To indulge in all that comes with ‘Sin City’ and to still remain distinguished or put together, is to reach the heights that the visual elements emphasize. Being sinful or uncivilized is not what is up for question in this version of the advertisement- advancement is the name of the game. The subject’s position as a white man, already squarely within hegemonic masculinity, allows him to use these products to better himself, and to reach success literally on another level than that of the black model.

This is shown in yet another image from this campaign, where the black model is explicitly excluded from participation in ‘Sin City’. The white males are left to their own devices- looking suave and smug while gambling in dramatic lighting which highlights their jawlines, cheekbones, and dark hair. Again, in contrast to the position of the black model, they seem relaxed and in control of themselves. The use of Nivea’s products, for these men, is not a matter of taming oneself into a civil humanity. Even their longer, slicked back hair contrasts with the severe buzzcut of the black subject- suggesting that some men need to be restrained more than others, or that hair on some bodies is more threatening when left unaltered. At stake in these advertisements are claims to a certain respectable, ideal masculinity, and while Nivea’s products give any man the opportunity to look like he gives a damn, the ads reinforce the hegemony of a white masculinity.





Conclusion: Hegemonic Masculinity and Femininity Commodified

Nivea’s advertising, and the controversies that surround it, can be situated in a larger cultural politics of defending white, heterosexual, hegemonic masculine and feminine subject types. Their products in particular, as means of representing the body, are a prime site for this type of contestation and formation of ideals. Proper consumption itself becomes a means of achieving the ‘purity’ of the deodorant ad, and the distinguished ‘civilization’ of the men’s ad. Purity becomes something which can be achieved and maintained through correct purchases, but still only within the realm of those who can afford it, and as the ads suggest, for white, gender-conforming people. These products and regimes of caring for the body serve to shore up these ideal male and female subjects through presentation. By using these commodities, the consumer can become masculine or feminine in the correct ways.

The Crisis Of Manhood

In the chapter “T-Power” in his book The Trouble With Nature (2003) Roger Lancaster describes a series of social changes, including the rise of feminism, which have lead to the crisis of the “dispossessed” man in the cultural imaginary. He writes,
First, with the rise of big industry, the way men worked was changing. The sharp decline of middle-class self-employment necessarily implied a crisis for the ideal of high-minded, self-restrained manhood it had once sustained. At the same time, an emergent women’s movement challenged men’s monopoly over education and their “natural” authority in the political sphere. Immigrant labor organizations and political machines further undermined the power of white, middle-class men in every major city. No doubt large numbers of previously secure men were rendered nervous, if not outright disoriented, by these social changes” (2003:158).

Lancaster argues that this perception of endangered masculinity led to a variety of renegotiations of the masculine, especially through figures and tropes of male characters in popular culture. Nivea’s own shift in marketing in 1986 seems to echo rising concerns about masculinity in an era of burgeoning feminism. When they write that men would no longer “have to use products that belonged to their wives, sisters or mothers” as justification for their new line, they are addressing the fears of men being feminized as women take over their domains. A clear divide between the products of men and women is necessary – a man caught using non-manly lotion commits the sin of being too effeminate, further eroding his social position.

The 2011 advertisements for the men’s line also represent an attempt to carve out a masculine space. The difference in results garnered from the products between men and women further showcases the desire to mark the proper subjectivities and spaces of the two genders. Whereas skin care and lotion for women helps to make supple, glowing, attractive skin, the men’s version purportedly returns them to a higher masculine domain of work. It also works to reinstate a nature/culture binary, where men are cultured beings of higher, capitalist society, while ads and descriptions of feminine products emphasize their organic ingredients and a return to a natural body. Situating the campaign in ‘Sin City’ also conjures up imagery of a masculine space full of women in the positions of showgirls and escorts.

Lancaster’s point about job insecurity and the decline of a stable, white middle class as a result of immigration and racial tensions underlies the difference in civilization rhetoric in the men’s advertisements. If increasing numbers of non-white men have access to the same spheres and benefits traditionally beholden to the white middle class, if they can even shop and consume the same products, some differentiation must be reinstated to counter this anxiety. The ads are visual affirmation of hegemonic white masculinity.

White Femininity

In addition to this binary line between the realm of women and men, NIVEA’s history upholds a hegemonic ideal of white, Eurocentric femininity even when advertising in other countries. Use of these products by white women enables them to reach a level of feminine refinement, while women of color, the advertising suggests, need these products to begin to approximate white feminine ideals. In addition to the Middle Eastern “Purity” campaign already discussed, Nivea frequently markets their products as creating “visibly fairer skin”, “natural fairness” and lotions that “visibly lighten”. These tag lines are notoriously attached to images of female models with dark skin, such as this image which appeared on billboards across Africa in 2017.They also released a shocking video which illustrates the same product physically lightening a black woman’s skin. These regional differences in advertising by an international company portray not only individual hegemony of white women, but Eurocentric cultural superiority. Rather than catering their products to match the needs of each consumer base, their advertisements consistently reinforce a nationalist white femininity.

In her analysis of the evolutions of femininity in the figure of the Southern Belle, Tara McPherson identifies a shift which coincides with the crisis of manhood. She writes that “White southern women’s move into a broader public role historically coincides with a wider regional (and national) move to curtail the rights of blacks, and it is important to recognize the way these two moments reinforced each other” (2003:191). Development of the quintessential Southern femininity occurred against the figure of the less refined, sometimes less than subject, black woman. A similar move appears in Nivea’s advertisements geared towards women as with men. The ads serve to secure and reinstate the position of white femininity by portraying a differentiated use of their products, and by curating whiteness as the goal – the ultimate body to ‘care’ for.

In the context of globalized markets and cross-country commodities, these particular, ideal white men and women are squarely situated as subjects of a Western world. Nivea has faced criticism in the past and has been involved in a number of marketing scandals concerning their racist advertisements, yet persists in creating similar media, even just last year in 2017. It seems as though the nature of their products, as intimately related to bodies and, as a result, their skins and genders, always leads back to the regulation of those bodies by hegemonic ideals.





Other Cited Works:

  • Lancaster, Roger. Ch. 10 “Homo Faber, Family Man,” and Ch. 11 “T-Power,” in TheTrouble with Nature: Sex in science and Popular culture. California, 2003
  • McPherson, Tara. Ch. 3 in Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South. 2003.
  • Douglass, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge and Keegan Paul. 1966.