In a world of fake beauty, authenticity can still pack a punch.

Can beauty marketing be done with ethics intact? Early this millennium, a global study by Unliever’s Dove brand of over 3,200 women across 10 countries found only 2% of women would describe themselves as beautifu (it was 1% in Australia) , 68 % strongly agree that the media sets an unrealistic standard of beauty, 75 % wish the media did a better job in portraying the diversity of women’s physical attractiveness across all sizes, shapes and ages.  By coincidence my own agency was researching the issue at around the same time for a chain of cosmetic clinics, with the same results.

In response, in 2004 Dove commenced its famous campaign designed to provoke discussion and encourage debate about the nature of beauty…and of course to differentiate its products in an industry characterised by hype, artificiality and over-claim. Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty‘ incorporated and has evolved to encompass a range of online and offline campaigns as well as the establishment of the Dove Self Esteem Fund. It’s worth reviewing.

The campaign was considered brave for using ‘real’ women instead of models. How real were the real women? Debatable.  Businessweek quoted the retoucher who worked on the images “to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.” So, despite the laudable use of different sized women, even the campaign for ‘real beauty’  published unattainable (by natural means) images of beauty.   As one commenter knowingly said “we know that no self-respecting art director (or client) is going to feature a “real” model with pock marks, day surgery or bike trip scars, and uneven skin tones – as “real” as those things are, they just don’t sell products unfortunately.”

Well, I’m not so sure. The campaign my agency launched at the same time as Dove’s also featured real women and we didn’t retouch a thing. Previously the client had been running horrible (and dishonest) ‘before and after’ ads, both sides heavily retouched, so the new approach was a big step for them. Yes, the clinics offered cosmetic procedures (non invasive eg botox etc), so arguably we were ethically compromised from the get go (depending on your views). But because (or despite) that,  we had the client agree to publish a ‘beauty manifesto’ which talked about the diversity of beauty,  the importance of self acceptance and keeping it real, and the undertaking where to never retouch images.The client promised to train clinic staff to identify and discourage serial procedure abusers. Our campaign was to incorporate a forum (pretty radical back then in the mid 2000s) where we hoped to encourage the debate about beauty. It was quite amazing to us when we became aware of Dove’s new campaign how strategically we’d come to the same place at the same time (us with a tiny fraction of Unilever’s resources of course!). The campaign launched online and in magazines:

..and the website…

Sadly the campaign was short lived. This was a brand building strategy but the client hadn’t told us how thin their funding was and they couldn’t sustain their business. We needed to add a retail dimension to the campaign, a challenge I would have relished, but we never had the chance, their business changed hands and was broken up. Would our strategy have worked given more time?

Judging by a PR analysis of Dove’s campaign, maybe so – it says the campaign returned $3 for every $1 spent.  In the first six months of the campaign, sales of Dove’s firming products increased 700 percent in Europe and in the United States, sales for the products in the advertisements increased 600 percent in the first two months of the campaign. In 2004, the first year of the campaign, global sales surpassed $1 billion, exceeding company expectations.
By the end of 2005, sales in the Asian-Pacific market increased from 19 percent to 26 percent. The press coverage has been massive; in the United States, launch coverage reached 30 million daytime television viewers via The Oprah Winfrey Show, which editorialised the campaign everyday for a week, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Today Show, The View and CNN. Engagement has also scored big: “Evolution” the viral video and the most famous execution of the campaign to date has been viewed more than 15 million times online and seen by more than 300 million people globally in various channels of distribution, including news coverage, by the estimation of Ogilvy Chairman-CEO Shelly Lazarus. (watch it if you haven’t already). Dove and Ogilvy won two Grand Prix Cannes Advertising Awards in 2007 (unprecedented). “Evolution” won Film Grand Prix and a Cyber Grand Prix. Dove won a silver IPA for effectiveness and a Grand EFFIE, which honors the most significant achievement in marketing communications effectiveness. One judge said “The judges said: “The Dove case showed the fantastic impact that marketing can have when you start with a great insight.”

Pity our guys didn’t have deeper pockets!

In a fabulous final irony, one series from the campaign  featured 50+ year olds naked under the headline “too old to be in an anti-aging ad…well this isn’t anti age, this id Pro Age”.

The campaign was not oinly banned in the US, “pro-family and women’s groups” urged a boycott of Dove products for “contributing to the sexualization of women as a commercial tool, as well as exposing children to adult nudity.” These uptight folks were also upset by some of Unilever’s campaigns for other brands (often men’s products) which were on occasion too risque for their fragile souls. Can’t win a trick these day, eh.

Still, it could be worse, as shown here in a Victoria’s Secret billboard which featured the line “Love your body”

Oh, and if you’ve seen ‘Evolution’ then add some spice with this great response (which has its own valid point to make!)


6 Responses to “In a world of fake beauty, authenticity can still pack a punch.”

  1. Nice post, I have often struggled with Unilever’s other products that they for sure don’t use “real” women for (mainly mens products like Axe) However you can’t ignore the success they have had.

    It is really a shame your clients didn’t have deeper pockets. Those print ads, and website looked really good! Nice job on the campaign, looks like something to be proud of.

    The Green Guerilla

    • Thanks GG, as time passes especially in light of Dove’s success I do feel increasingly proud of that one. The weird thing is, at that agency we had a real thing for authenticity, we used real customers for a couple of clients. I actually think we were a bit ahead of our time in that respect!

      You’re right about Unlilevers men’s products, there have been some explicitly sexist campaigns. I guess that might indicate that there’s Market Opportunism involved ie Dove doesn’t come from a place of genuine concern, it’s just a differentiating marketing position as far as Unilever is concerned. However it’s hard to square that with the amount of effort/money they put into things like the Self-Esteem fund. I’d love to hear from Unliever and/or their agency about the level of genuine conviction if any driving this campaign. Wonder if anyone can give me an answer about that.
      Of course on the other hand, does it matter? So long as there’s a positive message getting out there, why worry about the reasons for it?

  2. […] In a world of fake beauty, authenticity can still pack a punch. ( […]

  3. I both agree and disagree. If the majority of women aren’t thin, then by all means, appeal to them and this campaign makes perfect sense. But even though the media has catered to the thin girl, they’re still out there, and they’re beautiful, too. I know thin girls that would love to gain weight but can’t for whatever reason. People are just people. If it’s sex appeal, then it’s really in the eyes of the beholder. If it’s self-image, everyone should be happy with who they are, or work to change whatever they don’t like. My girlfriend is curvy, and that’s what I like personally. I think she’s sexy. Personally, I’m tall and thin, but I have this stomach I should be working on at the gym, but I never do. I don’t like my appearance because of it, but I’m also not doing anything to help it, so that’s on me. I do hate how women go ga ga over people like Ryan Reynolds because of how his body looks. It’s shallow and proves that women objectify men as much as men objectify women. We all need to stop doing that. Here’s a funny picture I found of some men modeling:

    • Totally agree, I guess it’s just a part of being human to judge one another in such shallow ways. Something to do with the way we pair up?….It’s unusual to see a vastly beautiful person with an ugly one, a beauty and the best, and if you do you wonder ‘what’s going on there’

    • You raise some really good points and i totally agree but I strongly feel that as marketers we have an important role to play and we have to take our responsibilities seriously.

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