Case Study: Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty

Unilevers Dove brand was launched in the market as a cleansing bar soap in 1957. The soap was based non-irritating cleaner and moisturizing component. By 1970s, Unilever had enhanced the soap into a beauty bar, which was milder and promised women of moisturized skins. The popularity of the soap at this time soared, and Unilever started expansion into the global market and by 1996, the brand was selling in over 80 countries. Between 1995 and 2001, Unilever expanded the range of products under the dove brand to include moisturizers, face creams, deodorants, shower gel, shampoos, conditioners, among other wide range of beauty and care products.

The key features and attributes of the brand such as its soft colors focused on promoting it as a rejuvenating, calming and exfoliating product brand with milder effects on the skin and high performance moisturizing abilities for dry skins. As the Dove brand mainly targeted women, its dove logo and tagline represent gentleness and softness at a higher sophistication in performance.

The Campaign’s Inspiration

In 2004, the Dove Brand commissioned a report “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report – Findings of the Global Study on Women, Beauty and Well-Being.” It is rooted in the increasing concern that representations of female beauty in popular culture fed a definition of beauty that was both inauthentic and unattainable. The Dove Brand theorized, resultantly that women are in this way prevented from appreciating beauty in themselves. Furthermore, in a culture women are so highly valued on their physical appearance, these standards have the potential to negatively impact women’s self-esteem, happiness, and overall well-being. Dove commissioned researchers from Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and StrategyOne to examine the relationship women have with beauty, determine how women define beauty, learn the level of satisfaction with women’s beauty and the impact beauty has on the well-being of women.

The findings were based on interviews with 3,200 women between the ages of 18-64 and were largely disheartening. World-wide, only 12% of women are satisfied with their physical appearance. No women described themselves as “gorgeous,” 1% of women described themselves as “stunning” and 2% of women describe themselves as “beautiful.” However there was a marked demand for broader, more inclusive definition of beauty: 68% strongly agree that the media sets and unrealistic standard of beauty and 75% wish the media did a better job of representing the broad range of women’s physical attractiveness, including size and shape and age. Furthermore, components of true beauty extend beyond mere physical attractiveness, to happiness, kindness, wisdom, dignity, love, authenticity and self-realization.

With this in mind the management team at Dove saw a great opportunity. At the time they were just introducing their line of beauty products.

Real Beauty Campaign 

The campaign developed by Ogilvy and Mather, focused on interacting with the consumers, with Dove branding itself not only as a beauty brand but also one that cares about and reaches out consumer’s needs. Adopting a reality based campaign using everyday girls in their advertisements; Dove not only enhanced self confidence, but also showed that Dove provides effective, accessible and affordable products that real women can confidently use to care for their skins. Philippe Harousseau, dove’s marketing manager noted that the Dove campaign sought to challenge the stereotypical beauty of young, tall and blond, and rather change the way beauty is perceived by emphasizing the beauty of each woman.

In 2004, Dove launched the first phase of it’s campaign to combat the problems revealed in their global study. They rolled-out a series of advertisements featuring women whose appearances are outside of the stereotypical norms of beauty. The Dove campaign recruited women recruited off the streets (at coffee shops, bookstores, grocery stores, etc.) instead of professional models. The women in the print ads are between the ages of 22 and 96 and a range across a variety of sizes (from 6 to 12). The  images were shot by in-demand fashion photographer David Rankin. Dove guarantees the images in the campaign have not been airbrushed in any way. The advertisements were places on billboards and bus stops throughout New York, Chicago, DC, LA and other top urban markets and asked viewers to go online to cast their vote: whether the models were “Fat or fab?”, “Wrinkled or wonderful?”, “Grey or gorgeous?” and “Freckled or flawless?”

Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty

The second phase of the campaign, launched in 2005, was the most iconic and featured six women with “real bodies and real curves.” This phase’s mission was to directly challenge the stereotypical assumption that only thin is beautiful. The ads promoted Dove’s firming lotion.

In response to the news and media outcry that erupted after Spain banned overly-skinny models from runways in 2006, Dove expanded on this phase of the campaign with three notable video ads: Evolution, Onslaught, and Amy.  Each one of these videos tells a little bit about their campaign.

Evolution is a video about the beauty industry’s efforts to change women’s appearances into something completely different in the pursuit of publication. The video starts with a woman walking in the frame and sitting on a stool. A man can be heard shouting directions to some crew. The screen fades to black and then words appear on screen.“a Dove film”  followed later by “evolution.” As the woman comes back onto screen, lights begin to turn on and people start to surround her, doing her hair and make-up. As music swells the viewer, the artists transform an average-looking blonde woman into a creation filled with make-up and hairspray. The video is on time-lapse, so what likely took over an hour to complete takes mere seconds to watch. After the transformation, the woman models for a photographer, as noted by the flashing lights. A photo is selected and then placed into photo editing software. Her neck is elongated, her hair expanded, her eyes enlarged along with a myriad of other small details to alter the image. The camera starts to zoom out and the viewer can see that the image is now on billboard overlooking a busy street. Then “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted” appears on screen. The video ends with the Dove self-esteem fund logo. This video serves as a way to inform viewers about the Dove fund and to speak out against the rampant use cosmetics and technology in order to alter women to appear as something they are not. They took a woman and made her into something that she could never be, with features not physically possible, but in a packaged way that made her seem normal nonetheless.

Onslaught is similar to Evolution in that it also targets the beauty industry and how they make an attempt to change women or tell them to change. Onslaught also starts with a black screen and then the “a Dove film” and “Onslaught” appear on screen. A young redheaded girl appears on screen. Cheery music starts in the background, but transitions to more of rock music with the words “here it comes” repeated five times each time heightening the anticipation of the viewer. The final repetition is joined with the little girl disappearing and images of ads with small women taking her place. The ads are shown for less than a second each, not enough time to actually see what they are advertising but enough time to notice the often scantily clad women. The body part in the clips vary between buttocks, legs, chests, lips, and every other imaginable body part. The video pauses at what can be assumed as a music video with two women in bathing suits gyrating. The video returns to clips with ads for things to alter appearance. Key words can now be made out and strung together they say, “You’ll look younger, smaller, lighter, firmer, tighter, thinner, softer.” As the barrage continues, the adds show a woman on a scale. Her body gets smaller then larger and then smaller again in alternating clips spread through ones for losing weight. Then montage of plastic surgery—everything from breast augmentations to rhinoplasties. The ad then flashes to a few young girls walking across the street. “talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does” appears on screen right as the young redhead crosses the street looking at the audience. The ad finishes with the Dove fund logo. The name of the video is quiet telling about what Dove is trying to say. The little girl is meant to be a symbol of innocence and purity, she has not be affected by outside influences, yet. She soon will be noticing images everywhere, an onslaught in fact, that will be influencing her perception of the ideal body. Dove is urging parents, mothers specifically, to warn their daughters about how companies advertise and to have them get their confidence from internal sources rather than external ones.

Amy again starts in a similar fashion to the other two videos. The video shows a young boy, roughly 12 in age riding his bike to a house. He sits outside saying, “Amy” repeatedly. He looks disappointed that she is not appearing. After it is clear that he has been waiting a while, “Amy can name 12 things wrong with her appearance.” Preceded by a pause, “He can’t name one” then flashes followed by “Sent to you by someone who thinks you’re beautiful” and the Dove fund logo. Amy is supposed to be a young girl who has been affected by the beauty industry. She is self-conscious and is likely seeing problems that others don’t actually see.

The Campaign’s Effect

The campaign received free advertising space from media coverage on national television shows that reached 30 million viewers. The Oprah Winfrey Show aired the campaign daily for a week straight. The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Today Show, The View and CNN also featured the campaign. Over the following year, profits from these advertisements increased dramatically and the campaign returned $3 for every $1 spent which is encouraging because is suggests that making profits and promoting ideas of positive beauty aren’t mutually-exclusive goals. In her book, Enlightened Sexism, Susan Douglas writes that the year that Dove started the Campaign for Real Beauty, their sales rose 12.5% and 10% the year after, hardly something to ignore. Clearly women were responding to their ad campaign. Women flocked to the company that were putting real women in their ads.

This campaign was powerfully moving for many women who were extremely relieved to see everyday diversity of feminine beauty celebrated by a prominent beauty company. Stacy Nadeau (one of the six Dove Beauties, now a public speaker and promoter of self-esteem in young girls) gave a lecture at Colgate in 2010 during which she told a story about a public appearance the six of them made shortly after the unveiling of the 2nd phase. One middle-aged woman approached the group, crying and holding a Dove advertisements and a picture of her daughter, who was recovering from anorexia. She said her daughter’s prognosis was extremely dire until the launch of this advertisement campaign at which point these photos became an inspiration for her daughter. In an emotional moment for all, still openly crying she thanked the women for saving her daughter’s life.

As a whole, Dove’s campaign for real beauty was a pioneering attempt to challenge the conceptions of beauty that are so limiting and harmful to women.

Campaign Critiques

In a world that is inundated with images that give women a narrow view of what the ideal body, the Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is a refreshing change. It opens up the conversation about how young women are influenced by the media and how the media can distort images to give unrealistic expectations. However, the Dove campaign also falls victims to some of the old tricks such as consumerism and sexualization as means to empower women. Critics voiced concerns about the authenticity of the brand’s movement, their parent company’s questionable associations, and the actual product the ads are selling.

As previously mentioned, the campaign generated double-digit growth for Dove in the second quarter of 2005. As evident in Dove’s case study, which is very blatantly focused on the economic advantages of this campaign, women influence or buy 80% of products sold, thus marketing to women is crucial for Dove’s success. Author Jonah Bloom remarked, “ You think Dove hatched ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ because it cares about women’s self-esteem? No, it simply wanted to play to the pack-following newsrooms all over the country that it knew would give the campaign more media coverage than it could have bought with a decade’s worth of marketing.”

But, by going and buying these products, women were, and still are, falling victim to consumerism. Dove’s campaign is giving women a means to overcome the stick figure expectation. But, they must purchase their products to do so. In order to break free of the pressure from some companies, they buy products from another. Assumed power and control is only given through consumerism.

The Dove Brand’s parent company is Unilever which owns many off-shoot brands including AXE, Slimfast, and Fair and Lovely. AXE commercials depend heavily on sexist stereotypes and overtly sexualized women to sell their product. Slimfast is clearly in direct contradiction of the message of Dove campaign as it’s products perpetuate the same body-insecurity problems Dove’s is trying to fight. Fair and Lovely is a skin-lightening product that is marketed to dark-skinned women across the world. This product reinforces the stereotype that light skin and beauty are somehow related. While the creators of Dove’s campaign for real beauty may not be in the position to directly influence the actions of these other products, the mere association is enough to slightly tarnish the image of the campaign.

Another issue with the Dove’s campaign for real beauty is the sexualization of women. The most well known ad for the company is a series of “real” women clad only in white underwear posing for a camera. They are heralded as a change in times. In order to show that the women are comfortable in their own skin, they are showing nearly all of it. In most cases, ads targeted towards women do not have scantily clad women in them. Those are typically for men. Many of Dove’s products are for smoother or softer skin, which is easily shown with the half-naked women. White is generally associated with purity and cleanliness. By having white undergarments for the women to model, they are being given and underlying nature of cleanliness and purity. In this case, the purity can come across as sexual purity. Since it is an ad about women celebrating their bodies, of course it is not about sex. In fact, it is the opposite. Because of the nature of the ad, the marketers were able to be more sexual without off-putting their female consumers who would normally oppose such a move. The ads are telling women that they can be empowered by being sexual, i.e. by still being attractive in their underwear. The ads from Dove still fall victim to sexualization.

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