Wednesday afternoon, BuzzFeed published a post by staff writer Arabelle Sicardi that openly criticized a bizarre advertising campaign by Dove. (A sample passage: “The soap manufacturer wants to tell us how we feel about ourselves. And then fix it for us. With soap.”) Thursday morning, however, BuzzFeed deleted the entire post and replaced it with a single sentence: “We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life.”
This is a familiar story for the web giant. Last year, BuzzFeed deleted more than 4,000 older posts that “didn’t age well” or plagiarized other outlets. The site never restored those posts, but its editors later vowed to stop deleting posts that became inconvenient. “The BuzzFeed Editorial Standards And Ethics Guide,” published in January 2015, explicitly states (bolding in the original): “Editorial posts should never be deleted for reasons related to their content, or because a subject or stakeholder has asked you to do so.”
As you can see in a copy of Sicardi’s original post preserved by the Internet Archive, neither her content nor her “tone” were actually objectionable. Dove is a cosmetics brand owned by Unilever, a consumer goods manufacturer with a standing market capitalization of $130 billion. And Dove sells beauty products by exploiting the insecurities its advertisements help to create—in this case, a TV spot in which women are seen choosing between a door that says “Average” and another one that says “Beautiful.”
Sicardi rightly hammered on this very point—“Dove has a long and fabled history of experimenting with the shame women feel about their bodies and posturing that they are the way out of it”—and supported her argument with plenty of evidence.
So then why was her post deleted? BuzzFeed didn’t immediately return our emails, but the site has a documented history of disappearing less-than-positive content on behalf of Unilever—whose suite of brands have placed major ad buys on BuzzFeed.
As former BuzzFeed employee Mark “Copyranter” Duffy wrote in 2013, the site’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith “made me delete [a post critical of deodorant brand Axe] one month after it was posted, due to apparent pressure from Axe’s owner Unilever.” In a subsequent email to Gawker, Smith did not deny Duffy’s explanation for the post’s removal.
The deletion of Sicardi’s post—again, due to a “tone” inconsistent with other BuzzFeed content—is particularly baffling given the editorial flexibility and daring that supposedly define BuzzFeed. In a July 2014 memo addressing the firing of Viral Politics Editor Benny Johnson, Smith wrote: “We will always have a more forgiving attitude toward bold failures, innocent errors, and misfired jokes than more skittish old media organizations.”
But Sicardi’s post was not a bold failure, or an innocent error, or a misfired joke. Her post was legitimate criticism of an exploitative marketing campaign underwritten by one of the largest and most powerful advertisers on the planet. In other words, the reason her post was necessary—in a way so many BuzzFeed posts are not—seems to be the very reason BuzzFeed deleted it.
Update 4/9/15, 11 p.m.
BuzzFeed Life editors Peggy Wang and Emily Fleischaker sent out an email to staff members explaining that the post was deleted because it failed to “show not tell” with crowdsourcing.
Just wanted to let you guys know that we ended up pulling the piece that Arabelle wrote about the most recent Dove ad campaign, which spawned from an interesting conversation we had in the Life Slack.
When we approach charged topics like body image and feminism, we need to show not tell. (That’s a good rule in general, by the way.) We can and should report on conversations that are happening around something that we have opinions about, but using our own voices (and hence, BuzzFeed’s voice) to advance a personal opinion often isn’t in line with BuzzFeed Life’s tone and editorial mission.
This is not something we or Ben have made as clear as we need to. We’ve never had to pull a post before, and it’s something that came with a lot of back-and-forth debate. In other words, it wasn’t an easy decision. But it is where we ended up at when thinking more about our editorial mission and how we can further chip away at what we do and what we don’t do.
The main takeaway is: When we write about news-related topics revolving around class, race, and feminism and other heated topics, it’s important that we show the conversation that is happening, or find other people who can give smart and valid quotes to make the point, or, ideally, add to the conversation with something substantively new. BuzzFeed Life has had such a huge positive impact on people’s lives by communicating our values in a fair and demonstrative way, rather than telling our audience how to think and feel.
We are more than open to discussing this and want to hear your questions, and we are grateful to Arabelle for identifying a topic so emotionally charged for women and giving us a reason to have these important conversations.
—Peggy & Emily
Or, as Ben Smith puts it on Twitter: “We are trying not to do hot takes.”
Update, 4/10/15, 4:00 p.m.
BuzzFeed has reinstated the post (along with another, earlier post criticizing the board game Monopoly):