Another insulting Dove ad: the Dove Beauty Patch

Let me make this perfectly clear, in case some of you still think that Unilever, the company that makes Dove beauty products, is somehow in the business of caring about women’s fragile self-esteem.

Unilever, as I wrote here previously, is in the business of convincing you to buy their products. Period.

The fact that they do this so successfully by blatantly appealing to your personal insecurities while pretending to care about you should be insulting to every woman (and man) out there. And their newest Dove marketing campaign is no exception. 

In this new campaign, which premiered recently on NBC’s Today show (in a segment sponsored – quelle surprise! – by Dove), six women are told that they’re going to help test a “revolutionary” new product: a “beauty patch” called RB-X. Not one of the women seems even remotely concerned about what ingredients are actually in this transdermal patch (usually a systemic way to deliver drugs).

Dove even somehow convinced a real live psychologist, Ann Kearney-Cook (in an embarrassingly career-limiting segment she will no doubt one day find as cringe-worthy as I do) to explain to the women that they’d be wearing the patch for two weeks while documenting how it makes them feel, using video diaries.  Two weeks later, the women report back to Ann that the patch has made them feel “more beautiful” and subsequently “more confident!”

Spoiler alert, in case you snoozed through the entire ad and hadn’t already guessed this 11 seconds into it: the patch contains absolutely nothing, and any reported increase in confidence was already within the women the whole time!

Wow! Who knew?

Does this mean I don’t have to buy Dove skin-firming products anymore – the ones that promise to make me more beautiful even while paradoxically assuring me I’m already plenty beautiful enough?

In fact, when Dove launched its groundbreaking Campaign for Real Beauty 10 years ago in which real women  (i.e. models larger than Size Zero) stood around in their white underwear, the corporate press release read:

“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 watching 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 very first year.

But eventually the high-fiving amid Dove-lovers hit a very public snag. Dove 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. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age responded by saying that he readily believed 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.”

Reaction to Dove’s new “beauty patch” this month has been predictably mixed. The TODAY show team (sponsored by Dove, remember) gushed about “scientific research” proving that “simply feeling more attractive can boost confidence!”

But meanwhile, the campaign’s been slammed for being condescending and deceitful. Just across town, for example, Maggie Lange at New York magazine wrote a piece on the campaign, bluntly titled “This Dove Ad Is Garbage”:

“Shame upon you, Dove, for making these women seem dumb, and for not scripting at least one of them to act outraged that she had been duped.”

An AdWeek column by David Griner predicts a “collective eyeroll” in response to the beauty patch campaign. Just as with ad agency Ogilvy & Mather’s other Real Beauty projects for Dove, this one, he points out, hews closely to last year’s previous “Sketches campaign (already at 62 million YouTube views). But this time, Griner asks:

“Is a woman’s self-esteem really so easily influenced that a few weeks of placebo could improve the way they see themselves?

“Is Dove empowering women – or calling them gullible?”

 The Twitterverse lit up like a Christmas tree in response to the beauty patch. A few examples:

Make no mistake, dear consumers: the way Unilever markets Dove (their biggest-selling personal care product line) is as strategic as any other competing manufacturer’s attempts to honestly convince us that we need their beauty products in order to become better.  The difference: Dove also thinks we’re stupid enough to buy their anti-aging, anti-wrinkle, anti-cellulite products to fix what’s wrong with us – all the while convincing us that there’s nothing actually wrong at all!

Now that is brilliant marketing.

As Unilever explains on its own website:

“A survey commissioned by Dove in 2010 found that only 4% of women around the world believe they are beautiful. Our analysis shows that supporting this cause is good for business.

“Over half (56%) of women are more likely to buy Dove following campaigns such as the Campaign for Real Beauty.”

Over half of us are more likely to buy Dove based on these ad campaigns? If you’re in the business of selling skin-firming creams, that is really what’s worth caring about.

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22 thoughts on “Another insulting Dove ad: the Dove Beauty Patch

  1. Carolyn, I’m so glad you wrote about this.

    I was stunned speechless when I saw this the other day. Dove has sunk to a new low in manipulating women. And, yes, I would like to have seen at least one of those women react with unedited, justifiable outrage.

    It’s one thing to demonstrate the power of the placebo effect, but to do it properly, a double-blind study — and not one funded as a marketing campaign for a manufacturer — would be the only valid way to do it.

    Dr. Kearney-Cook should be hanging her head in shame to have participated in such nonsense. Assuming she’s got a Ph.D., she should ask for a refund from her alma mater, because she apparently didn’t get much of an education.

    Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So well put! I think one of the (many) things that galls me about this campaign is that Dove is describing it as a type of noble “social experiment” instead of what it clearly is: marketing. Thanks for sharing your perspective here.

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  2. I have no idea how anybody – in normal circumstances- could stand to watch this type of ad for a full 4 minutes! However I was not overly surprised at the – apparent – gullibility (call it stupidity if you like) of the women who took part in the “experiment”, as I didn’t expect it to be a reflection of real life: the women were paid, after all, and money helps smooth things over.

    And then there’s editing, should one of them lose her top. Somehow this type of ad seems to me more likely to be shown in America than Europe, but I might just be prejudiced, as I don’t live in America or even near there.

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    • Bon jour et merci, Jacques. This campaign is being rolled out in 65 countries – including European countries – accompanied by paid media support. I too wondered about the editing here. These six women are offered a skin patch (typically used to deliver systemic drugs) without even questioning precisely what’s IN that patch?

      Your email address appears to be from France – where I have observed during many visits that French women seem remarkably beautiful to me (and I’m not talking about just physical beauty). I’d like to hope that French women would have laughed at the very thought of wearing such a “beauty patch”.

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      • Bonjour Carolyn. I doubt many French women would have watched it – not the ones I know, in any case, and not long enough to laugh at it.

        As for the length of the ad, anything exceeding 30 seconds seems to me unlikely to appear on French TV (though I stopped watching it some years ago). Perhaps on Youtube or such? But you can erase those after a few seconds, can’t you?

        Now I wouldn’t risk any comment on the beauty of French women, as it might be perceived as an indirect one on others. But American women (used to) look fine to me. Besides, as my mother used to say: “La beauté, cela ne se mange pas en salade!”

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  3. I thought that I wasn’t going to like the ad after reading this. I’m thinking “what kind of idiot think a patch will make them prettier?!?” But they didn’t say that they would get prettier. It said that it would enhance their perception of themselves. There are literally pills for that. So no, I don’t think that it was mean of Dove or stupid of the women. I think that it was a touching ad that says that you don’t need anything to make you feel beautiful. Yes, Dove sells items to help women feel beautiful. But if you haven’t noticed, women who think that they are drop dead gorgeous go out of their way to stay that way and spend a few buck on product. Good idea Dove. Rather than tell women that they look like a mack truck hit their face and they need your products to fix it, tell them that they are beautiful, as they are, and your products help maintain and enhance that beauty. I think that is a much better message and definitely one that I can stand behind.

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    • Thanks for sharing your perspective here, Tamica. I think the part of the ad that made the women think the patch would make them prettier was the part where they actually called it a “beauty patch”. That’s pretty galling.

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  6. I think people are over reacting. In regards to the ad where the models were size 6 and 8 but still beautiful. Ok, but since they did have size 6 and 8, personally I still consider that progress. They made money off of it? So what? Maybe it was time for the advertising people to realize that even women who are so huge as to be a size 6 or 8 also spend money. Maybe eventually they will even progress to show a size 10. Can you imagine, a double digit size model! I wouldn’t care if she was the most beautiful woman in the world, it would still be a step closer to what REAL woman look like.
    As for the patch, they had a point to make and they made it. I think they had already made that point with the sketches, though. Most women DO feel unattractive. Yes, we are told it’s the inside that matters, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc etc. We are told to be more confident, act more confident. We are told all of those clichés. We know it, but we don’t KNOW it. I think the patch gives an excellent example that will help some women KNOW. Personally, I thought the sketches did a better job of helping us KNOW.
    Did it cause me to start buying Dove products? Nope, not at all. Still don’t have any Dove products. But, the ads did strike a note with me and did cause me to THINK. I think that’s a good thing. If they made money at the same time, who cares?

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    • Thanks for sharing your perspective Jaclyn. If Dove were performing this community service while selling widgets, it wouldn’t matter, but trying to sell women their anti-aging, anti-wrinkle, anti-cellulite beauty products all while claiming that we’re already beautiful enough is what galls so many of us.

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  8. Don’t be hating. Don’t be shouting. (And you KNOW ME) I fell for it and (cringe) waiting for attack, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. I took it as empowering women to be themselves, that they didn’t need cosmetics or anything else to make them their beautiful selves. Just an ego boost. Just confidence. We all can use it once in awhile. Why all the hatred. why isn’t it a good thing to learn that you, are beautiful, inside and out. Can’t we keep it simple? (Guess not.) From, Peachy

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    • Hi Peachy – a matter of interpretation. You’re not alone: many other women did like this campaign. I happen to agree with the AdAge observation (quoted in the post) that Dove is not empowering women, they’re calling us gullible. Calling me gullible while trying to sell me their anti-wrinkle, anti-aging, anti-cellulite miracle beauty products – and at the same time telling me I’m beautiful just exactly the way I am – is reeeeeeally offensive to me. I agree – women should have the self-confidence we need to not even “need” these insulting Dove ads.

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