Friday, August 08, 2008

5792: L’Oréal, Beyoncé And Cultural Cluéléssnéss.

Hadn’t planned to examine the L’Oréal/Beyoncé drama, as others have already addressed it with better perspective, better emotion and better boycotting. Besides, it’s always best to avoid touching a Black woman’s hair—even as a blog topic—unless you really know what you’re doing. Hey, this subject is so combustible, it managed to draw comments at the typically ignored Agency Spy. Anyway, here are a few thoughts from a primarily advertising-related viewpoint.

Contrary to popular protests, it’s unlikely that L’Oréal deliberately lightened Beyoncé’s skin or messed with her nose and other items. The company officially insisted, “It is categorically untrue that L’Oréal Paris altered Ms. Knowles’ features or skin tone in the campaign for Féria hair color.” The company is probably right. However, they’re still probably wrong. Bear with us for a bit.

Technically, it’s a safe bet L’Oréal did not covertly tamper with the superstar. Anyone who has ever produced fashion advertising or fashion photography will attest that lighting plays a key role. When filming hair, incredibly strong lamps are used to make each strand visible and shiny. For example, commercials for Pantene and Clairol often show the backs of women’s heads for two reasons: 1) to display every glistening follicle and; 2) to avoid having the person’s face completely “blown out” (or whitewashed) by the spotlights. Given that L’Oréal is selling a haircolor and highlights product, they undoubtedly employed a ton of lights. Think supernova.

This is not a case of L’Oréal manipulating Beyoncé via Photoshop (at least not beyond the normal ultra-retouching done for fashion shots). Quite the opposite. L’Oréal should have used Photoshop—to restore the natural skin tone removed by the lighting. Sorry, but it simply doesn’t make sense that L’Oréal would alter Beyoncé for this campaign when she has already graced numerous ads for the beauty company.

Unfortunately, L’Oréal unwittingly stepped on a cultural landmine, and ultimately displayed their cultural cluelessness. They should have worked harder with their lighting to compensate for a Black woman (Black hair care specialists are much more savvy about these things). Plus, they should have looked closer at the image to realize the potential issues. Although they were not actively being sneaky or evil, L’Oréal was professionally insensitive in this scenario. Despite being headquartered in Paris—a locale boasting forward thinking—the company is culturally clueless.

Ironically, L’Oréal owns SoftSheen-Carson, an expert in the Black hair care category. Rumors claim the enterprises remain segregated, so it’s not like the White folks would ever consider consulting with the Black sister company. And heaven forbid SoftSheen-Carson might receive L’Oréal budgets to sign up Beyoncé too. SoftSheen-Carson has to settle for Kelly Rowland.

Another dilemma to keep in mind: L’Oréal is working with White beauty standards. Hence, they failed to foresee the damage this campaign has generated. Beyoncé looked just fine to L’Oréal—and she still does. We’ll forgo the standard(s) rant associated with this observation.

In the end, L’Oréal didn’t intentionally do anything wrong. Unless you believe that an international beauty corporation being culturally clueless is wrong. For the advertising industry—and the fashion industry—it’s par for the course.


Phoenix said...

I came here from Deceiver and...interesting take on it, although not entirely untouched by others. I still can't buy the idea that L'Oreal professional photogs didn't think to compensate for the most common of all photography issues for glamor shots, since amateurs know to do so, but the reasons they didn't remain to be seen. On-site makeup can help with that a LOT, yet doesn't seem to be used here.

Perhaps you're right and they just didn't see the issue because they are used to white beauty.

But with a celebrity endorsement they should have been smarter than that...

Eh, who knows.

Incidentally, it kinda hurt your credibility on deceiver (in my eyes) to use the "if I'm wrong I'll join your boycott bandwagon" line in your post when absolutely nobody said anything about boycotting. Defensive, much?

Still, interesting take on the issue.

HighJive said...

Sorry, the boycott reference was in response to some other folks (third link in first paragraph). Yes, you’re right others have presented similar observations; however, we were tired of reading the overwhelming majority of people using the term Photoshop. Who knows why they didn’t do a better job of dealing with the lighting. But you would be surprised how clueless even the most professional photographers, stylists, hair and makeup artists, etc. can be when dealing with non-White talent. Perhaps L’Oréal even hesitated to Photoshop color back into Beyoncé for fear of being accused of darkening her. Plus, they would likely have made things even worse. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Anonymous said...


thank you for your comments at and for your unique perspective. Your theory is possible, but frankly unlikely based on what we Black women know about beauty, mass media, and mega-giants like L'Oreal. They've been in the business too long to be this careless, and there is a persistent reliance on promoting bleached-out images of women of color to supposedly sell more products. They understand the beauty ideal that is perpetuated in our society, and sadly there are many sisters/Black women/women of color who still fall for this fantasy due to self-esteem issues.

Gladly, there are equally as many of us who do not.

Hopefully L'Oreal will get the lighting right next time, and the assumptions that fuel so many of their advertising campaigns.

God bless and thanks for 'speaking' your mind. That's what we're all about at

HighJive said...

Thanks for the comments. To be clear, we completely believe L’Oréal screwed up here—along with its advertising agency, which may be more responsible than L’Oréal. Guess we just differ on the reasons behind the screw-up.

We have a great deal of experience producing advertising and fashion photography depicting Black talent. We’ve seen firsthand when clients/agencies/directors/photographers/etc. select and reject talent based on things like skin tone, hair, facial features and all sorts of other criteria rooted in individual and even racist perceptions about “the way things should be.” And yes, we’ve even seen images manipulated via Photoshop to distort reality.

Perhaps we’re just splitting hairs—manipulated via Photoshop or not—as the end result is the same. But it is odd, if we were to agree with your stance, that L’Oreal would only choose one Beyoncé ad to whitewash to such a degree. Actually, if you view the range of L’Oréal ads starring Beyoncé, you’ll see a range of tones, indicating the company and its advertising agencies could use some help getting their acts together.

If L’Oréal and its ad agency deliberately whitewashed Beyoncé, by all means, they should be ripped and condemned. If they let the lightened skin happen because of ignorance and bad lighting, they don’t have to necessarily be condemned (although you’d think they’d know better by now). However, they still need some serious schooling in either case. If we only attack them, it seems like their defense becomes, “No, we didn’t.” How do we get beyond that defensive stance and make them truly understand the issue and work for change?