The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides. – Audrey Hepburn
How many times have Dove sparked outrage with a campaign? 3? Maybe 5? To be perfectly honest, I think the majority of us have lost count now. Dove is hardly the first marketer to find itself embroiled in a public relations crisis this year, but experts say that their most recent mishaps have placed them alongside the biggest brand crises of 2017 (with tough competition from Pepsi and United). The real question is, how much longer can Dove keep up the campaign for ‘Real Beauty’ before they lose their entire following?
It has now been 13 years since the exhibition opened, and it can be said that the ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is one of modern marketing’s most talked-about success stories. The campaign has expanded from billboards to television ads and online videos. The 2006 video, ‘Evolution’ went viral before “viral” was even a thing, (after all, YouTube had only launched the year before). Also, Dove’s 2013 ‘Real Beauty Sketches’, which shows women describing their appearances to a forensic sketch artist, became the most-watched video ad of all time (can be viewed below).
However, many of these campaigns have received public backlash. One of the most recent controversial issue comes from a social media outcry over an advertisement for Dove body wash which showed a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman. This has understandably escalated into a public relations disaster for the Unilever brand.
The 3-second video clip, posted on Dove’s U.S. Facebook page in October, reminded some social media users of racist soap adverts from the 19th century or early 20th century that showed black people scrubbing their skin to become white. Resulting in a worldwide #BoycottDove trend. If this was the first time Dove was accused for being racist, the recovery process would be a lot simpler. However a previous Dove ad, which showed three women side by side in front of a before-and-after image of cracked and smooth skin, caused an uproar in 2011 because the woman positioned on the “before” side was black while the “after” woman was white.
I could go on with more major examples of public relations crisis but I think we can all see a reoccurring theme here…
So why are these campaigns upsetting so many women?
Maybe the idea of change isn’t what Dove should be focusing on. Not everyone agrees with the importance the campaign places on physical beauty. It indicates to women that when it comes to evaluating ourselves and other women, beauty is paramount. Also, just because women are defining beauty, do they actually feel different about themselves? An estimated 80 percent of American women feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and 81 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of becoming “fat.” Can a series of ad campaigns really change institutionalised body hatred?
Most likely not. I can see how this message of beauty can be seen as problematic to some individuals, but until we get to a point in culture where the dominant messages about girls and women are not focused on their physical bodies, then we do need to actually reaffirm a broader and more innate, internal definition of what beauty is. For me, we are still nowhere near that point.
When I think of Dove products, I think of plain, white and simple soap. In my opinion, the fact that Dove have associated their brand with influencing men and women worldwide to think about the narrow definitions of female beauty is admirable.
Despite the controversy, this Real Beauty public relations campaign has been honoured several times as one of the best campaigns in recent history. It has won a handful (or two) of ad awards and has sold an enormous amount of product. Sales have increased to $4 billion today from $2.5 billion in its opening campaign year. If that wasn’t enough, research from a Harvard psychologist, Nancy Etcoff, examining the campaign then and now found that more women today describe beauty on a wider variety of qualities outside of just looks, such as confidence. Quite an achievement for a controversial public relations campaign if you ask me!
I believe each of the campaigns success is based on the eye of the perceiver, and my eye… loves them. I can honestly say that as I went through watching ‘Sketches’ and ‘Speak is Beautiful’, I was moved to tears. ‘Evolution’ in particular struck a chord for me at the young age of 11, opening my eyes to the narrow definitions of beauty I was growing up with and the way images were manipulated to fit ideals. You can watch Evolution by clicking on the link below.
Are Dove using public relations effectively to maximise their success?
One thing for sure; Dove often have a good strategy, but poor execution. They need to be able to anticipate cultural points of view and reactions that their campaigns will generate. In the reality of the competitive world we now operate in, it is evident that consumer mobs can quickly jump on a misguided conception and cause it to escalate far beyond the brand’s control. This is why PR professionals should have a responsibility to see how a campaign can be construed through multiple lenses, from various audience segments through to the media.
Dove is targeting a diverse market, yet the lack of diverse thinking is becoming apparent. Their intent is not the subject that should be questioned, maybe it is their approval process.
Whether you critique or champion the ongoing Real Beauty campaign, it is difficult to argue with the results and the goals of inspiring women and girls to reach their full potential through building a positive self-esteem.
Ultimately, Dove was — and still is — one of the only mainstream advertisers talking about how we define female beauty. Personally, I don’t know what beauty is, but I do know you are more beautiful than you think.
So I will leave you with this… in Dove’s situation, is all publicity good publicity?
Chloe Stewart is a final year BSc in Communication, Advertising and Marketing student at Ulster University. You can follow her on Twitter @ChloeStewart8 or reach out on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/chloe-stewart-007150a4/