Monday, May 9, 2011

It's not Carol's Daughter's fault or Remembering to be a critical consumer

Thursday on my Twitter feed I posted a link to Gina's rant about the beauty brand Carol's Daughter on What About Our Daughters to varying responses. The brand recently issued a press release announcing a trio of new celebrity spokespersons, chosen for their multiracial heritage, and touting a new "colorless" beauty aesthetic, they say the move is in keeping with the rising number of multiracial Americans and the fact that new generations "don't see color." Gina gave the announcement a big side-eye in her typical ovaries-to-the-wall style. Many of my natural-headed Tweeple, who have been watching the evolution of CD with some resentment, threw their fists in the air and shouted "Hell yeah!". But some others wondered what is so wrong with a company expanding their target audience to include self-identified multiracial women and why that would be seen as a slam at black women. I had several really interesting conversations as a result of Gina's post and it left me judging my initial visceral reaction. I've spent some time reading and rereading the offending press release, several posts about it (Rolling Out covered the issue here and here), and CD's response to the furor. I also spent some time browsing the CD site for the first time in years. I am left with this:

Carol's Daughter isn't wrong here. I am.

Carol's Daughter is a company founded and operated by a woman, who is also "of color." For that alone, I wish the company well. Lisa Price is blazing trails. Good for her. Given all the other challenges they face, I don't know whether we need to start holding black businesses or women-owned businesses to higher or different standards. Like any business owner, Price is well within her rights to expand her marketing target or change her product. Business and the free market are amoral. I might wish that Carol's Daughter made decisions based on a particular set of values that are important to me, but I don't have any skin in the game and most companies will hold to a set of ethics only so far as it does not infringe upon their ability to turn a profit. True fact. I was wrong to forget that.

But that doesn't mean that I don't have a right to feel disappointed in the company's direction.

I first encountered Carol's Daughter the first time I tried to transition to natural hair. As has been well discussed, kinky black hair is anathema to the mainstream beauty standard. Transitioning meant confronting that and the larger ways that black women's physicality is marginalized. Nearly a decade ago, there weren't as many natural heads in advertising and magazines. And few beauty companies were interested in catering to naturals with products that worked well for us, just as few companies' ideas of beauty diversity were broad enough to include mahogany skin, full noses and lips. ( I am not suggesting that all black women have these traits. I am suggesting that black traits closer to the mainstream beauty ideal are preferenced by the beauty industrial complex, while the ones that contradict is are erased.) Carol's Daughter was among the few beauty companies that seemed to promote a different aesthetic.

The Carol's Daughter brand was on the lips of every natural in every forum I visited. Folks were repping for CD's quality products and dedication to natural ingredients. The company seemed to support the natural community and embrace the idea that beauty really does come in ALL shades and levels of hair kink. My impression, in those early days, based on the close bond between the natural community and Carol's Daughter, was that we were among the company's primary targets. And I don't think I was alone in believing, based on the company's rhetoric at the time, that Carol's Daughter was dedicated to supporting and elevating black beauty beyond that traditionally presented in the mainstream. Ultimately, CD's hair products just didn't work for me. I haven't purchased them in a long time, but I continued to support and recommend them.

Color me happy when Carol's Daughter began expanding and getting some media shine a few years back. I noticed, though, that while the company gained a higher profile, it also seemed like a different company than the one I first encountered. Celebrity spokespersons Jada Pinkett Smith and Mary J. Blige are awesome ladies, but both have been molded into something close to the Hollywood ideal. What happened to the dedication to less-often-featured versions of black beauty? Carol's Daughter in their new messaging and advertising creative began to look exactly like all the other beauty lines aimed at black women--often run by non-black corporate behemoths. For instance, of the few images of women on the company's current website, there is not one that falls far from the typical Eurocentric ideal. Not. ONE.

My beef is not that CD is expanding its marketing targets, but that it seems to have jettisoned the women who helped it rise to prominence, and with them, the message that all kinds of black beauty are not just okay, but worth promoting through messaging, the choice of spokespersons and imagery in promotional creative. The company's recent press release says it is moving in "polyethnic space," yet it seems that space is only large enough for the physicality that has always been favored in our society. For example, if diverse beauty includes both women like Cassie (top right) and women like model Ajuma Nasenyana (directly above), then where are the women who look like Nasenyana in CD's promotion and press releases?

It occurs to me now that my understanding of CD's core values may well have been a combination of my own projection and the company's savvy marketers. This would not be the first time a consumer has mistaken marketing for mission. Many of  Whole Foods' progressive customers were shocked when CEO John Mackey came out against Obama's healthcare plan; they had assumed the company's politics were their own. More recently, folks have been questioning Starbuck's fair trade claims. And a lot of people who embraced Dove's "real beauty" marketing campaign didn't know that parent company Unilever encourages women in India to forgo their "real beauty" for lighter skin and is also responsible for those gross Axe body spray commercials.

So, now what?

Carol's Daugher will continue to do what it does. I hope it will thrive. We absolutely need successful minority-owned and woman-owned businesses.

But I will continue to make corporate mission and ethics one element of my buying decisions. I make a specific effort to support hair and skin care businesses that affirm blackness in all its varieties and that subvert traditional paradigms of female beauty. I don't think Carol's Daughter is that sort of company. Fair enough. This experience has been a reminder that, when evaluating a company's values, one has to look beyond marketing rhetoric to a company's actual actions. The onus is on each of us to be educated consumers. If we fail to evaluate a company critically before we give it our loyalty, then we must bear a share of the blame when we later find we have been used.

P.S. I could write a whole nother post on CD's assumptions about what multiracial looks like, their erasure of the fact that most American descendants of enslaved Africans are multiracial, and my fear that the company's embrace of "polyethnic space" is actually the exoticizing and preferencing of multiracial heritage that can be common in the black community--a view that helps no one, including those of mixed heritage.


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