Ancestry.com on Friday apologized for an ad that showed a mixed-race couple discussing escaping to the North during the Civil War era.
The ad drew widespread criticism on social media for whitewashing slavery, prompting the DNA testing company to remove it from TV and its YouTube channel. Ancestry started running the ad on TV on April 15, according to research firm iSpot.TV.
The ad is part of a campaign by Ancestry showing stories from the past to pique viewers’ curiosity about their ancestors. It depicts a white man holding up a ring and telling a black woman wearing Civil War-era clothing that they can be together if they escape to the North. The woman says nothing as the scene fades to black, with the line: “Without you, the story stops here.”
Critics pointed out that the ad ignores the fact that mixed race couplings during the slavery era were usually not romantic love stories but instead due to rape and violence against slaves.
Many took to Twitter to express complaints about the ad.
“I used this service a few years ago. And when I realized I was more than 10% European, I wept,” tweeted Brittany Packnett. “Not from shame for who I am, but from anger from the trauma of how it may have come to be. This commercial spits on the trauma in our veins and the fight of our ancestors.”
In an emailed statement, Ancestry said the ad was intended to be part of its effort to tell “important stories from history.”
“We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused,” the company said in the statement.
M.J. McCallum, creative director of Muse Communications, called the ad “thoughtless,” but said it could happen to any company that doesn’t prioritize having diverse representation in its ranks.
“I believe it’s the responsibility of brands and their agencies to foster inclusive environments,” he said. “They must encourage their team members to be open, honest and vulnerable to topics like race and culture.”
The Ancestry ad joins a long list of missteps by marketers that are at best tone-deaf and at worst racist.
In 2017, Dove stopped using a Facebook GIF that showed a black woman removing a brown shirt and transforming into a white woman. The ad was meant to show different types of people can use Dove but many saw it as saying the black woman was “dirty” and the white woman was “clean.” Dove apologized .
In 2018, a Heineken ad with the tagline “Sometimes, Lighter Is Better,” showed a bartender sliding a bottle of Heineken down a bar where several people of color were sitting before it stops in front of a light-skinned woman. Heineken apologized and pulled the ad after an online outcry in which many people, including Chance the Rapper, called the ad racist.
And in February , Gucci pulled a sweater off the market after complaints that the oversized collar designed to cover the face resembled blackface makeup. Italian designer Prada, Katy Perry’s fashion line and H&M have also pulled similar racially insensitivity items.
“The idea that an ad won’t be offensive simply because no one who approved it was offended is just not acceptable anymore,” McCallum said. “Yes, there is always a chance that even the best of intentions will be misinterpreted, but there are reliable resources and skilled professionals available for brands to tap into.”