Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Unreflective Joy: A Little Dab'll Do Ya

Frequent readers of this blog know that I strongly disapprove of the use of gospel music in advertising. (New readers can catch up here, here and here.)

A quick review: I share the sentiments Dr. Barbara Holmes of Memphis Theological Seminary expresses in her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church:

"Exuberance and social consciousness are only the most obvious contributions that the black church has to offer a history of human spiritual engagement. . .[W]hen these charismatic practices are deemed to be the quintessential expression of black worship, our view of the black church is reduced to caricature.

"The myth of unreflective joy is reinforced by the use of black worship to sell commerical products. . . .My discomfort with commercialized uses of Africana worship traditions is exacerbated by the implicit respect given to other ethnic traditions. Although I am aware that advertisers have free reign in a consumer-driven culture and that very little is sacrosanct, I also note that I have never seen a Muslim cleric touting the detergent that keeps his robes fresh, orthodox cantors singing antacid ads, or an American Indian emerging from a sweat lodge with a name-brand deodorant in his hand.

" . . . Moses Berry shares his grandmother Dorothy's caution about carelessly offering precious communal wisdom to the wider world:

'If you share something sacred with people who won't respect it, they will try to reduce it to something that they can understand, and miss the sacredness. Therefore . . .don't let them know about your church music because they'll turn it into dance music or look at it like "folk music," and miss the point that it's the music of suffering people that lifted them from earth to heaven. It's not merely an art form.'"

Like Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, I think these uses of gospel music are part of the downside of gospel's increased mainstream popularity. Still, I want to believe that sacred music can be shared with those who will treat it and its religious roots respectfully.

But this hasn't been the best week for that.

First, I saw an oddly sensual commercial for Lipton White Tea that features the spiritual "This Little Light of Mine." As far as I can tell, it doesn't have a whole lot to do with spirituals. Or with tea, for that matter.

Then, I discovered Nivea's new campaign for their Goodbye Cellulite product. The ad (and website, which you can see here) features a "Goodbye Cellulite Choir."

From the product description:

"Praise be for NIVEA body Goodbye Cellulite. Containing L-Carnitine, this smooth, non-greasy formula moisturises and visibly smoothes dimpled skin. . . .Smooth NIVEA body Goodbye Cellulite on problem areas such as thighs, buttocks and stomach once or twice a day and you could be enjoying visible results in just 4 weeks.

And that is something to sing about!"

(No, it's not. Consider yourself warned about the content of the video.)

This is beyond annoying. It's scandalous. Whether or not you take a look at the campaign website, it's easy to see why some people in the UK's gospel community have called the campaign "racist and blasphemous." From the "shouting music" you hear upon clicking to the dancing, raunchy lyrics (shades of Saartjie Baartman/"Hottentot Venus," anyone?), and stereotypes you can read about in the "Meet the Band" section, it's one ugly misrepresentation of black music, black worship, and black Christians, specifically black Christian women. (There's not much I can say about the Goodbye Cellulite Hip-Hop Band video, because it actually resembles some of the mainstream hip-hop videos I've seen.)

According to news reports, the ad agency approached Ken Burton of the London Adventist Chorale to assemble a choir for the ad campaign, and he refused. "The context of having black people walking around slapping their hind thighs in a church whilst people shout Hallelujah (which means I give highest praise to God) is highly blasphemous,” he told the online magazine United By One. (It's worth noting that Burton doesn't object to the use of gospel music in ads, but is concerned that the context be respectful.)

The Voice reports that Beiersdorf UK LTD (which manufactures Nivea products) released a statement saying “The campaign was not intended to show disrespect to either the genre or faith of gospel music, or to any part of African culture but rather a celebration of gospel music and its joyful attitude.” A representative of Staniforth, the PR agency that worked on the campaign, added that " . . .the use of gospel music was intended to create a fun and joyful atmosphere."

A particularly flagrant perpetuation of the myth of unreflective joy. Apparently, it didn't occur to anyone in those organizations that gospel has religious and cultural significance--that it's more than fun music to be appropriated for any commercial purpose.

Finally, I'm particularly troubled by the (mostly black) crowd of actors and actresses who sang for the ad and filmed the scene. Beiersdorf and Staniforth couldn't have made this mess without their complicity. Where's their sense that the living artifacts of African(-American) culture are not to be shared recklessly?


In the next day or two, I'll be writing a polite letter of protest to Beiersdorf UK LTD, submitting a copy to the Nivea Products website, and contacting Staniforth, the PR firm that worked with Nivea on the campaign.


Ed G. said...

Gospel Gal,

I'm in total agreement with you. This is truly appalling. Besides being racially and culturally offensive, it's not a very good ad. I don't see anything in it that would make one want to go out and buy the product. The song itself isn't very catchy either.

This also brings to mind shades of the Don Imus controversy. One of arguments used by Imus's defenders was that the language and codifications of hip-hop were now in the public domain and, thus, should be available for use by all races. Gospel music has probably occupied that kind of position in our culture even longer. So shouldn't Nivea and their ad agency have the freedom to appropriate it--and the "spirit" of it--for their use?

I don't buy that argument, but I would suggest that the way gospel has been invoked for ages by blues, soul, R&B, pop, and hip-hop artists opens it up to this kind of crude appropriation.

That said, this ad is quite disheartening. Thanks for bringing it to our attention and for speaking out against this sort of thing. I'll sign the petition if you start one.

Ed G.

LaTonya said...

Hi, Ed,

I don't plan to start a petition, but I do encourage concerned people to send letters to Beiersdorf (Nivea's parent company), to Staniforth (the advertising firm that worked with Beiersdorf on the ad), and to file a complaint with the Advertising Standards Association. I've provided links to the first two in the blog post, and you can reach the ASA at Here's the letter I sent (altering slightly for each venue):

To Whom It May Concern:

I write to share my concerns about the NIVEA advertising campaign featuring the “Goodbye Cellulite Choir.”

This campaign’s use of gospel music is extremely disrespectful to people of faith. Gospel music is religious music, and an important part of Christian worship services. To use gospel music to sell cellulite cream—and to combine its use with raunchy, sexualized lyrics and dancing—is a willful misappropriation of its purpose. Gospel music is more than simply joyful or exuberant music, and more than folk music or cultural artifact. It’s sacred music, and this campaign fails to recognize that.

Further, this campaign is rife with stereotypes of African-Americans (with whom gospel music originated) and people of African descent. From the caricatured facial expressions of the people in the commercial, to the mocking treatment of black music and black worship, to the stereotypical descriptions of the women in the “Meet the Band” section of the campaign website, this campaign is replete with ugly misrepresentations. The lyrics of the song, with their emphasis on the women’s rear ends, play into some particularly harmful stereotypes of African and African-American women.

This campaign is an affront to people of goodwill and good taste, and I respectfully ask that you discontinue it immediately. I am sending a copy of this letter to the Advertising Standards Authority, as well as to Staniforth, and I look forward to your response.



LaTonya said...

This comment came in recently from Joseph M. in Houston, TX:

I am an avid gospel enthusiast. I read your article about Nivea's ad mocking gospel music with inappropriate lyrics and stereotypical images of black folks. I agree with you, it's sacrilegious and racist. Are you sending your letters via snail mail or e-mail? You might make a better impression if you send them via certified mail."

LaTonya said...

Here's a response one reader received from Beiersdorf's Consumer Relations Team:

"The Goodbye Cellulite campaign was never intended to show disrespect to any faith, the genre of gospel music, or to any culture. Indeed, the campaign is intended as a celebration of gospel music and its joyful, uplifting and positive attitude.
>Genuine gospel singers from the UK were involved in the recording and formed part of the choir in the music video. An authentic choir was used for all events and public appearances in support of the campaign. We worked closely with the choir to ensure that they were in agreement with the contents of the activity and believed this reflected well on the gospel genre.
>Over a six month production process the NIVEA team have experienced first hand the integrity and generosity of the gospel community and believed that the affection and respect we have for the people and the genre was reflected in the campaign.
>We are sorry if our activity has caused any offence since this was never our intention. We have made our Marketing Director aware of your comments, as feedback is very important to us when planning for future initiatives.
>Thank you for taking the time and trouble to contact us.
>Yours sincerely
>The Consumer Relations Team"