I went to lunch with a bunch of former colleagues today and this came up. The consensus, without people thinking too hard about it was that it was somehow racist.
I caught some shit for saying it was well-intentioned and pretty tone deaf -- but not racist.
Kind of a dumb execution, especially considering the history of using illustrations of black and white children to show a before and after in vintage soap advertising. That occurred to me in about one nanosecond after seeing it. I can't believe they missed it.
Slideshows on the internet and group emails showing racist/sexist vintage advertising have been going around for a long time -- those ads are always included. Hard to believe anyone in advertising at that level wouldn't be aware of them and make the connection. Not that you would even need to be aware of those ads to see how it could come off the wrong way.
Otherwise, I gathered it was about using the soap on different skin types combined with some feel good message about how we're all same underneath, etc. etc.
It could be that if they'd simply rearranged the sequence of the women -- this controversy could have been avoided. Oh well.