Is Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty for “Real” Women?
By Lauren Millette
Dove is trying to be sensitive to more than just skin these days with its Campaign for Real Beauty, aimed at promoting a healthier, more inclusive view of women’s bodies.
Dove, one of the leading beauty brands worldwide, began a quest to change the image of female models in its ads in spring of 2003 with a United Kingdom campaign. The advertising campaign for a firming lotion, not yet available in the United States, featured six women of various body types confidently posing in their underwear . The campaign, photographed by renowned artist Ian Rankin, began a media commotion and debate about society’s narrow definition of beauty, particularly concerning everyday real women.1 According to Women’s Wear Daily, the sales of the firming lotion within the UK doubled within a month of the billboard’s debut. In addition the campaign increased Dove sales by 700% and made Dove the fastest-growing beauty brand in Western Europe.
The overwhelming response to the UK campaign inspired Dove to develop an international successor in the form of the Campaign for Real Beauty based on “The Real Truth About Beauty: a Global Report.” Dove’s parent company, Unilever, one of the largest global companies in the world, commissioned the study. Its brands range from beauty to food products and it owns brands like Axe, Dove (its biggest beauty brand), and Caress as well as Country Crock, Lipton, Slim-Fast, and Hellmann’s. The study was conducted by the research firm StrategyOne in collaboration with Dr. Nancy Etcoff of Harvard University and Dr. Susie Orbach of the London School of Economics. The study was designed with Dove’s mission in mind: to determine how women define beauty; their level of satisfaction with their own beauty; and its impact on their sense of well-being.
The Global Report was comprised from a study conducted by StrategyOne, which sampled 3,200 women, ages 18 to 64, from ten different industrialized countries in order to determine if other first world women felt the same as those of the United Kingdom when asked whether or not they define themselves as beautiful. The survey was fielded between February 27 and March 26, 2004. The objective was to obtain as accurate an understanding as possible of women’s relationship with their own beauty, unmediated by ideals or stimulus.
In collaboration with the StrategyOne research company, Dove enlisted the expertise of Dr. Etcoff and Orbach. Dr. Etcoff is a psychologist and faculty member of the Harvard Medical School and of Harvard University’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative. Dr. Orbach has conducted research on the perception of beauty, emotion, and the brain for over fifteen years. Some of her written works include the 1978 bestseller Fat is a Feminist Issue and her 1999 book, Survival of the Prettiest.
So why would these two well-educated, prominent female theorists be willing to team up with a beauty brand who manufactures products like firming lotion? According to Dr. Etcoff in her foreword of “The Real Truth About Beauty” report, “The default definition of beauty has shriveled pitifully.” In a society where women compare themselves to the idolized images of pop culture icons like Britney Spears and Victoria’s Secret models it is logical for women to have a narrow definition of beauty; one that wears a size 2, has long flowing locks, and seemingly flawless skin. It is this narrow idea of what is beautiful that Dr. Etcoff says must be changed by redefining beauty. She says the study is “a landmark, a revolutionary step forward in reclaiming beauty and reexamining it with a 21st century point of view. It realizes that beauty is never going away and that it has enormous power.” For Dr. Orbach, the decision to join the study was one of similar concern for the media’s portrayal of beauty and the perils of preserving the current definition of beauty. In The Observer article, “Why We’re all Beautiful Now,” Dr. Orbach attributes her participation in the campaign to the following:
“Having worked for 30 years in the area of eating disorders, I began to think what visual culture was doing to us – the fact we see a minimum of 12,000 images a week; the way that, for the generation of women who felt OK about their bodies, it has destroyed that. But it really was a hunch until I read a study showing that in 1995, when TV was first brought into Fiji, a country that had no body-image eating problems, three years later girls were throwing up over the toilet bowl. Visual culture is that powerful. So when Dove approached me, I felt we needed a way to diversify and challenge the digitally enhanced photos that are out there.”2
The results of the study affirmed the hypothesis of both Dr. Etcoff and Orbach, that women are hesitant to claim ownership of the word “beauty.” Of course this was not a surprising conclusion in a society where, as the findings show, women see beauty and physical attractiveness as being connected to self-worth and believe that the two are increasingly socially mandated and rewarded. So what did Dove do with these findings? It created an advertising campaign, the Campaign for Real Beauty
At the New York launch event for the campaign on September 29, 2004, Silvia Lagnado, the global brand director of Dove said, “At Dove, we have a simple mission, to make more women feel beautiful every day.” 1 This mission, coupled with the findings in the Global Report, resulted in Dove’s creation of the ad campaign featuring five print ads with real women who are not the conventional supermodels used in other beauty product ads. The ads are not designed to sell a specific product, rather just the brand. Each ad asks the viewer to judge the woman’s appearance. The five ads present the following questions:
1."Gray? Gorgeous?" features Merlin Glozer, 45, of London, England with a natural mane of gray hair and is subtitled: "Why aren't women glad to be gray?"
2. "Half empty? Half full?" features small-breasted Esther Poyer, 35, of London, England and is subtitled: "Does sexiness depend on how full your cups are?"
3. "Flawed? Flawless?" features heavily-freckled Leah Sheehan, 22, of London, England and is subtitled: "Does beauty mean looking like everyone else?"
4. “Wrinkled? Wonderful?” features Irene Sinclair, 96, of London, England asks “Will society ever accept old can be beautiful?”
5. “Oversized? Outstanding?” features voluptuous Tabatha Roman, 34, of New York asks “Does true beauty only squeeze into a size 6?”
The models themselves pose an interesting paradox for many interpreters of the campaign. Although Dove claims that the photos have not been airbrushed, people have marveled at the perfection of these supposedly imperfect models. In The Observer, Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman notes, “Those girls don't have any spots on their skin, there's no hair or moles.” As Shulman acknowledges, the models chosen are conventionally attractive, minus the one “flaw” that Dove points out in their corresponding ad. One would expect that in a campaign which claims to diversify the definition of “beauty,” the models would be women who are not just one “flaw” away from supermodeldom. This suggests that the campaign is not trying to help potential consumers accept various forms of beauty, rather sell the Dove brand as the remedy to this fatal flaw, that when corrected, would allow women to be more beautiful.
The suggestion that Dove is interested in selling a brand, not a new philosophy on female beauty, has been voiced in recent critiques of the campaign. Jack Neff’s article, “In Dove Ads, Normal is the New Beautiful” featured in the September 27, 2004 issue of Advertising Age, argues that the campaign is focused on drumming up sales for Unilever, who broadly missed earnings forecasts for 2004 as sales of its leading brands decline. Dove is one of the company’s better sellers, as “Dove’s sales have grown at a double digit clip for several years and now top $3 billion globally.” Thus, Neff suggests that the company safely attempted to further its original “girl-next-door” feel by encouraging women to be happy just the way they are. Stacie Bright, marketing communications manager of Unilever in the U.S., adds that the campaign “isn’t a departure for the brand.”7
There may be no departure for Dove in the Real Beauty campaign but there certainly is for Unilever, which also owns Slim-Fast. In the Slim-Fast ads, the target is the opposite of Dove’s: women dissatisfied with their appearance. For example, a Slim-Fast ad in the UK last summer prayed upon the insecurities of plus-size British women by comparing them to their French peers in bikinis on European beaches. Bright described the Dove-Slim-Fast contradiction as merely a result of Unilever owning various brands, “There are a lot of different types of people in the world, and I think that’s how those campaigns live in the same company.” Bright presents an interesting point about the consumer that both Dove and Slim-Fast are trying to market to: the same woman. Both brands are hoping that their products are going to appeal to different sides of the same consumer. Based on the Global Report, which only found what we already knew to be too true about bad female self-esteem and body image, Unilever proved that it targets women who are dissatisfied with their bodies to sell Dove. Does this mean that Unilever does not take that into consideration when targeting ads specifically selling Slim-Fast to the same unhappy women? It seems like Unilever wants to make a profit off of the insecurities of potential female consumers whether they want to lose a few pounds or have a more radiant complexion.
The response to the Campaign from the consumer public seems to be mixed. In Hoggard’s article, “Why We’re All Beautiful Now,” interviews were conducted with various women about their thoughts on the success of the Dove ads. Yvonna, a 47-year-old London gallery owner, says that reality sells: “I think we have all had enough of seeing images of women with perfect skin and model-size bodies using their sex appeal to sell anything. Do we personally know women like that?” There were also women in Hoggard’s piece who felt that the ads were not real enough. For Sarah, 43:
“There is nothing ‘ugly’ about these women. They score on the very attractive scale of normal. The caption for the redhead with lovely freckles refers to spots - but she has a perfect complexion and no spots and I suspect she wouldn't have been chosen if she had. As far as the product goes - it wouldn't make me buy Dove, but I do start to see the brand in a more credible light.”
Sarah’s comment harks back to the observations by Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, who told Hoggard that she too finds no real defects with the women in the ads. Only certain derivations to the traditional idea of beauty seem to be permitted in the campaign and those that are depicted are photogenic in nature. Tabatha Roman’s curvaceous figure is portrayed as sexy in her little black dress and Merlin Glozer’s gray hair is long and flowing around her beautiful face. These are not flaws like crooked teeth or pimply skin that cause the viewer to recoil. Instead Dove chose women who are beautiful in pretty much every sense of the word, minus that one distinguishing trait, or “flaw,” that the ad itself points out. Without the subtitle, “Gray? Gorgeous?” would the viewer even notice that Merlin is slightly different than the average model found in beauty product ads?
Despite the generally positive response from women, Hoggard’s piece does highlight the overwhelming feeling that the campaign is energizing to women but cannot produce real change. According to Good House Keeping editor Lindsay Nicholson, “The images are wonderfully energising, but it's not a cure for eating disorders or age discrimination. To think it will resolve issues that have been problematic for women for centuries is simplistic.” Moreover most of the women interviewed feared that the campaign was just that –an ad campaign. In direct contrast is Dove’s global brand director, Lagnado, who believes that an ad campaign can be altruistic and profitable: “If it touches women’s hearts, it will work.” 1 So if there can be no real change to the female psyche and society’s perception of beauty, what does the campaign do? It makes Dove look good.
Although Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has generated criticism in balance with support, it seems that the brand is actually silencing doubters by putting its money where its mouth is. The website, Campaignforrealbeauty.com, is littered with features such as discussion boards, interactive advertisements where you can vote on the ads and receive the running tally of the results, as well as access to the full Global Report, all lending to the campaign a purely democratic feel which boosts the notion that they’re all about supporting women. In addition Dove has created the Self-Esteem Fund in partnership with Girl Scouts of America entitled “Uniquely Me!” which helps build confidence in girls ages 8-14. The Self-Esteem Fund also supports Body Talk, an educational program for schools in the UK and Canada. 3 Dove has also endowed a Program for Aesthetics and Well-Being at Harvard to examine the portrayal of beauty in popular culture and how it affects women.7 All this appears very altruistic, but can one discount the fact that Dr. Etcoff is a faculty member at the Harvard program or that Dove is able to create brand identity with girls as young as eight through its involvement with the Self-Esteem Fund? One wonders if these initiatives do not just provide another arena for Dove to promote itself and develop brand loyalty with potential consumers.
If the Campaign for Real Beauty was designed with the real woman in mind, then why are many of them questioning not only the content of the ads but also the motive behind them? If the ads are supposed to appeal to women to accept their bodies as beautiful just the way they are, why does Dove sell products that smooth out wrinkles and shape up flabby skin? The flaws that the ads present, such as heavily-freckled skin or gray hair, are only flaws when seen as such through the lens of society’s current definition of beauty. Dove did not try to dispel this classification when it chose the models for its Campaign for Real Beauty ads. Rather, Dove selected women with features that they deemed “flaws” in an effort to sell the brand to more women who could identify with the flawed, real models. By employing conventionally attractive models to convey the message that everyone is beautiful in their own unique way, the Dove brand contradicts itself. If its real aim is to widen the net, so to speak, on what constitutes beauty, then why don’t they have models that are wrinkled, with flabby arms, frizzy hair, and mottled complexions? Oh, wait… wouldn’t that be a real woman, who needs more than just one beauty product to push her over the line from real to supermodel?
© Lauren Millette