Cadbury’s ad row with Naomi Campbell and ASA’s response

The Black History Walks website has a useful list of ways to help combat negative media portrayal of black people.

Some of the suggestions are:

  • Go out of your way to attend events, prove there is demand
  • Buy original dvds with positive images direct from source
  • Check out and
  • Read Frantz Fanon Wretched of the Earth and Brainwashed by Tim Burrell
  • Decorate your house/office with positive images
  • Challenge stereotypical comments
  • Write to editors/directors if you see inaccurate portrayals

In line with the last two points I contacted ASA (Advertising Standards Agency) about the Cadbury Dairy Milk ads which likened super model Naomi Campbell to a chocolate bar. Despite that Naomi Campbell threatened to sue Cadbury’s, and stated that she was hurt and insulted by the ads, apparently we were only three people that complained.

It was quite surprising as the web was rife with commentary about the ad. Of course, many people might not have found the ad offensive. The ASA point out to me how people have varying opinions on what is ‘bad taste’. The ASA also argue that “the ad was likely to be understood to refer to Naomi Campbell’s reputation for “diva-style” behaviour rather than her race”. Seeing that chocolate doesn’t have an attitude I failed to make that immediate link but I agree that she is seen as a diva.

As ASA received only four complaints about the campaign, three from members of the public and one from OBV,  and due to their sentiments about the ad’s suitability, they did not find rounds to intervene. Whatever our views about this particular ad, the correspondence got me wondering if we complain often enough about black people being negatively portrayed in media, what do you think? Are we so used to stereotypical images that we see no point in reacting when something rubs us the wrong way?

Posting ASA’s response in the case it’s of interest.

Dear Ms Salami


Thank you for contacting the Advertising Standards Authority.
I should say right at the start that the ASA Council has considered your complaint but didn’t think there were sufficient grounds for us to intervene.  Let me explain.

Our Code says that ads should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence.  The ASA bases its judgments on the content of the ad and the medium, audience, product type and prevailing standards in society.

Complaints about offence often require difficult judgements but we don’t intervene where advertising is simply criticised for being in poor taste. Apart from freedom of speech considerations, even well-intentioned and thoughtful people will have different and sometimes contradictory opinions about what constitutes ‘bad taste’ or should be prohibited.  We can only act if the ad, in our judgement, offends against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.

In this case, we didn’t think the advertising was likely to have those effects because we considered that the ad was likely to be understood to refer to Naomi Campbell’s reputation for “diva-style” behaviour rather than her race.  On this basis the Council decided that the ad was unlikely to be seen as racist or to cause serious or widespread offence.

We’ve received only three other complaints on the subject so it does seem your concern isn’t widely shared.  The number of complaints isn’t the main factor of course – we’ve upheld solo complaints and not intervened when there were hundreds – but it is part of the picture in cases of this kind.

I realise this decision will disappoint you but I’ve passed your comments to the advertiser (without revealing your identity) so they’re aware of your views.  And we’ll continue to monitor the response to this campaign.

Our website,, contains information about the ASA and the work we do, including the results of investigations into other complaints, many of which have been upheld.

Yours sincerely

Save the date – June 24th – V&A Museum Friday Late: Afropolitans.

  • teachermrw

    First, I commend you for taking direct action. Second, the response you received, albeit sad, is also predicable and expected, given the nature of society on matters of race.

  • Dele

    Its about time you gave us our habitual cultural treat with one of your posts :-) Thanks as usual. Can you please share your perspective on why, and to whom, the ad is offensive?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Dele, the ad was offensive to me as a black woman because I felt it likened Naomi to a chocolate bar due to her skin colour, an action which in a post-racist world wouldn’t be noteworthy but that considering the status quo brings to mind prejudiced collective memories. It also insulted me due to its underlying implication that there is only one ‘token’ famous black woman. Last but not least, it offended Naomi herself, and as someone who has worked on advertising campaigns it shocks me that no one at the ad agency or at Cadbury’s thought to check if she would approve for her name to be associated in this context.

  • Neil

    Well their response is typical as its most unlikely any of them got called chocolate drop, walnut whip, bournville ( a very dark chocolate from cadburys) or any other of the racial epithets that compared one’s skin colour to chocolate. The other comment was that you were ‘nigger brown’ or had been ‘left in the oven too long’. I remember being called all those things and all the terms were meant to demean and objectify a person because of their colourand Cadburys are taken the biscuit when they try to make out they were’nt comparing her to chocolate but to the name of the chocolate . Its a bit like saying their famous flake advert had nothing to do with oral sex. They can say it but most people can work out whats going on

    • MsAfropolitan

      Indeed. Share your sentiments Neil

  • oladele

    Where do we draw the line on what jokes/inuendo are appropriate? I’m not being rhetorical or suggesting that cadburys did not cross that line whatever it is. But i’d be supremely interested in any thoughts on where such a line should be drawn or if there’s even consensus that there even should be such a line. I think the line depends on the relative position of priviledge of the source group/corporation compared to the group who are the target of the jokes/inuendo. If the source group are in anyway more priviledged, then it could be that there is zero leeway for jokes/inuendo by that priviledged group against others. This would seem responsible and kinda consistent with harmonious interpersonal social interaction among responsible indiviuals who know not to joke at expense of less priviledged. However, its way more “ok”, perhaps even necesary, for less priviledged to poke fun at have-mores. Should this be the standard for society at large including corporations and wholle racial groups? Or perhaps potentially hurtful inuendo of any kind is just wrong regardless of its “seriousness”,source or target?

    • MsAfropolitan

      I think you’ve answered the question actually. The line is relative on such factors as privilege, common sense etc. I doubt it’s possible to introduce any formal rules on where to cross the line. For example, the way women generally are portrayed in ads could in my opinion have a way higher threshold of responsibility. Whether racially or sexually offensive and so on, the only solution as I see it is to keep complaining widely. In this age of social media, the word spreads so fast that any brand who manages to offend larger groups of their clientele cannot simply get away with it, even if organisations such as the ASA decide not to infer. Negative media will affect brands (and people) increasingly and in this sensethere is an interesting ‘self-regulation’ occurring through public socializing

  • Vickii

    While I agree that we need to speak up if we feel we or something we believe in have been inaccurately represented, I have to say I do not understand where racism comes into play with this ad. It was for a chocolate company hence the product would always have been a chocolate bar. Therefore it was the words which were something like ‘Watch out Naomi, there’s a new diva in town’ that were directed at Naomi and it is my opinion that she was picked for no other reason than the fact that she has an awful reputation (the term ‘diva’ actually sugar coats just how awful that reputation is).

    I didn’t see Naomi Watts stepping forward and objecting to the ad but that’s because she could see nothing of herself in the ad. Naomi, and the rest of the world put ‘diva’ and ‘Naomi’ together and pointed a finger at the right Naomi.

    I just think that ad could have worked just as well and exactly the same with a white celebrity – though it is unlikely that there is one of any colour who throws larger tantrums than Naomi.

    My two cents :)

    • MsAfropolitan

      Interesting to hear your perspective Vickii!

      Even if it was her awful reputation that was being attacked, I think Cadbury’s committed a scandalous faux pas by not consulting with her first.
      However, I saw it as an association to her skin colour. I guess the way we interpret ads are down to our own personal experiences. Which is also why I think ads should consider that even if it doesn’t offend every black person, it offended enough of us (including Naomi herself and the OBV) for it not to run.