If we’re beautiful just the way we are, why do those Dove ‘Real Beauty’ ads tell us we need to buy their skin firming creams?

It was a truly brilliant stroke of marketing genius, this Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Over the past five years, this ad campaign flogs Dove’s skin firming products by using real women instead of professional size-two models in its advertising. The ‘real’ women in the ads range in age from 22 to 96, and cover a variety of sizes.

According to a press release from Dove’s parent company, Unilever:

“Through this global initiative, Dove has boldly defied society’s traditional images, and celebrated the beauty of women of different shape, size, colour and age because the brand believes this can widen the definition of beauty.”

Call me cynical, but I suspect that what the brand actually believes is that this campaign would sell a big whack of Dove skin firming products.

Dove strategically targeted a demographic of women who are tired of those stick-thin supermodels who just make us feel frumpy and dumpy by comparison. And this innovative strategy worked. Within six months of the campaign launch, European sales of Dove’s skin firming products increased by 700%.  The campaign’s 2004 sales topped $1 billion in its first year.

Is it just me, or does anybody else wonder why Dove and its ad agency pals tell us first that our natural imperfect beauty should be celebrated – but then that natural aging  is wrong and must be stopped by purchasing Dove skin firming creams?  That we should stop feeling intimidated by unrealistic media images of beauty, but then open our wallets to buy Dove’s cellulite-fighting cream?  And why did women line up like sheep to buy this stuff?

Well, it turns out that not everybody loves the award-winning marketing campaign as much as the sheep do (aside from its eye-popping market share gains, Dove won the Grand Prix at Cannes as well as many other advertising industry awards).

Cracks first started to appear after Dove’s claim that images of its real women in this campaign have not been airbrushed in any way came under attack. The company was publicly accused of airbrushing some of their “lumpier-than-usual” models after Pascal Dangin, a prominent photo retoucher, let slip his little oops confession of collusion during a New Yorker interview.

Dove denied these allegations, of course, but Bob Garfield of Advertising Age would readily believe Dangin’s admission. Garfield called the Dove campaign “confounding” and then added this description of their ‘real’ women models:

“Sizes six and eight notwithstanding, they’re still head turners with straight white teeth, no visible pores and not a sign of cellulite”.

Chicago Sun Times reporter Lucio Guerrero then called the ad campaign “disturbing” and then went on to annoy the women of the world by adding:

“The only time I want to see a thigh that big is in a bucket with bread crumbs on it.”

Several Dove billboard ads in the U.S. were defaced with graffiti such as Fat Girls Can Be Corporate Shills Too – and much harsher profanity-laden comments.

Dr. Barbara Altman Bruno isa clinical social worker who specializes in body image issues, and is the author of the book, Worth Your Weight.  She told CBC’s Street Cents that she believes these Dove spots, along with other examples of reality advertising, were “disingenuous”. She is in favour of the use of larger-sized women as models, but refers to the method of using them to sell cellulite cream as “a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach”.

Journalist Rebecca Traister, in her essay called “Real Beauty – Or Really Smart Marketing?” for Salon.com, slammed the hypocrisy of the Dove ads.

“As long as you’re patting yourself on the back for hiring real-life models with imperfect bodies, why ask those models to flog a cream that has zero health value and is just an expensive and temporary Band-Aid for a ‘problem’ that the media has told us we have with our bodies?”

Jennifer Pozner of the media analysis, education and advocacy group called Women in Media & News further suggested that if the true aim of the Dove campaign was to “advance female ideals of beauty” as the company claims, then “they should use these models across the board” when advertising all Unilever products, and not just to move skin firming cream.

And former Advertising Age editor Jonah Bloom asked a CBC interviewer:

“Do you think Dove hatched its 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 world that it knew would give this campaign more media coverage than it could have bought with a decade’s worth of marketing.”

Consider the revealing claims made by Dove’s skin firming products:

  • the body wash label says it “moisturizes to improve skin’s elasticity in 10 days”
  • the lotion label says testing proves “after two weeks, skin is noticeably firmer”
  • the cream promises that in two weeks “the appearance of cellulite is visibly reduced”

Quite a compelling list of self-improvement promises from a company that’s telling women we don’t need improvement.  What Dove, Unilever and their ad agency Ogilvy Mather do know about us, however, is the real key to this campaign’s success.

For example, women in middle age are what author Marti Barletta calls “PrimeTime Women”. She is the CEO of consulting think-tank The Trend Sight Group and author of Marketing To Women: How To Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the World’s Largest Market Segment. She says she calls us PrimeTime Women for two reasons:

  • 1.  we are in the prime of our lives
  • 2.  we are the prime target opportunity for marketers in almost every category, not just beauty care but historically male-dominated categories too, including automotive, financial services, real estate, travel, and home electronics.

According to Barletta, middle-aged women handle 80-85% of the spending decisions for households in the peak years of their income, wealth, and spending power. And they are radically different from any previous generation of women. They are the healthiest, wealthiest, most active, educated, and influential generation of women in history.

“Marketers are always looking for a magic answer. For once, they just may have one. With their huge numbers, rapid growth, and incredible spending power, PrimeTime Women may well be the ‘silver bullet’ marketers are looking for.”

So Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty was a indeed a brilliantly gutsy gamble that paid off in spectacular fashion.

But make no mistake: this campaign was not about the company wanting women to feel better about our bodies.  It’s about maximizing profits, and those come only when consumers are dissatisfied enough to spend money on improvements.  Dove sees us merely as the ‘silver bullet’ they need to target. All they had to do was to hit upon just the right strategic message to grab our attention (“real women have curves”) and we responded in precisely the way Dove wanted us to in order to expand market share for them.

Prepare yourself for copycat campaigns as other products climb onboard this marketing gravy train. Dove’s already launched a similar sales pitch for male consumers, while Nike (usually a leader – not a follower – when it comes to smart in-your-face ad campaigns) has aped Dove’s model with its sassy ‘big butt’ ad.

Find out more about what’s behind the original Campaign for Real Beauty marketing plan in Rebecca Traister’s article from Salon.com.

18 thoughts on “If we’re beautiful just the way we are, why do those Dove ‘Real Beauty’ ads tell us we need to buy their skin firming creams?

  1. Hello Carolyn,
    Thank you for this!! I thought I was the only one who inwardly cringed at every “Dove” ad. They have hit upon a brilliant marketing gimic, but a gimic it still is, and the gimic’s only goal is to sell more Dove stuff. And the gimic is remarkably successful as well – women have bought it hook, line and sinker. How sad for us…

    • Dove just did some market research on what women don’t like about current beauty product advertising, and then acted on what they learned. A no-brainer. It’s not progressive or enlightened – just a way to make more money. Just makes you wonder why other companies didn’t clue into this strategy long ago, too.

  2. Amen! I wonder why so many women are falling for this? It’s so obvious. Interesting that ads for Dove products for men are not quite so “concerned” about men’s self-esteem or body image issues!!! Love your site, good work here.

    • I agree, Terri2. I was just at my local Boots store and I felt like putting a ‘warning – don’t be taken in!’ sign on the Dove product shelf!

  3. The makers of Dove are no different than any other company trying to sell us stuff. Like we used to say, marketing is all about the sizzle, not the steak. If Dove can convince us that their soaps and lotions and potions somehow are better for our fragile little psyche ( except of course we still need to get rid of all that unsightly cellulite by buying their product, right?), — it’s just more money in the bank for them. The fact that women are getting sucked into the marketing strategy is interesting.

  4. What people say they like in polls and what they actually like often differ. The bigger-than-average Dove models have dropped off the radar over the past few years, leading me to suspect the Campaign for Real Beauty, despite all the hype, didn’t sell that much soap.

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