Consumer goods company Unilever has played down protests by East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) residents against a Lifebuoy soap brand TV commercial, which the company said was intended to raise public awareness on the issue of health and hygiene in the region.
“We apologize to anyone who have felt uncomfortable watching the video. We have never meant to degrade children and the people of NTT,” Maria D. Dwianto, corporate communications director of Unilever, said in a written statement.
“The program was launched to help improve the public’s awareness on hygiene and a healthier lifestyle, through one of Unilever’s main campaigns, named ‘Wash Your Hands With Soap.’”
According to Maria, the campaign was backed by a research that proves hand-washing could help lower risks of diarrhea by up to 50 percent and reduce respiratory tract infections by 45 percent.
“This simple habit could have a great impact, especially for the health conditions of infants who are suffering most from infections,” she said.
East Nusa Tenggara Governor Frans Lebu Raya over the weekend lashed out at Unilever Indonesia, claiming the Lifebuoy advertisement gives a false portrayal of the extent of poverty in the province.
“It makes it seem that without Lifebuoy soap, the children of NTT will not be able to celebrate their fifth birthday,” Frans said in Kupang, the provincial capital.
The governor said the ad, in which residents of the village of Bitobe are depicted as not understanding the importance of good hygiene and sanitation, exaggerated the local level of poverty.
Maria said Unilever first launched its hand-washing campaign in Indonesia 10 years ago, while the new advertisement and aid program focusing on Bitobe village was only launched recently.
“The program is part of an educational campaign, which Unilever has been doing consistently for the past 10 years in the country,” Maria said.
“It is based on scientific research, based on the East Nusa Tenggara health information and data report and also a report from the 2012 Indonesia demography and health survey, which showed NTT as one of the provinces with the highest rate of infant mortality — 58 out of every 1,000 births.”
Maria added that the decision to select Bitobe village as the focus of the program had been based on recommendations by local government, who pointed that the village was among the areas in the Kupang district, which needed aid.
NTT residents have responded to the ad, claiming that it was demeaning. They also launched a petition to have it dropped.
“We think it’s a form of poverty exploitation for business interests. The ad makes it look like if you buy Lifebuoy soap, you automatically save children’s lives and help them to reach their fifth birthday,” local resident Buche said. “This is obviously an image built for a product.”
Maria said the program, which raised funds for the Bitobe area on the Internet and with the purchase of the Lifebuoy soap, ended on Saturday.
The company collected Rp 710 million ($60,000) for the construction of sanitation facilities, access to clean water and hygiene and health education programs in Bitobe. The Jakarta Globe