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.