– 21 August 2013

The Ad

The fashion industry has long been criticised for creating a false set of standards for beauty. Then again, in its defence, one only has to look at ancient statues and paintings – Greece’s Athena, Rome’s Venus – to realise that the appreciation of human beauty is something that is inherent in human nature. Nonetheless, the fashion industry stands accused of creating standards that the vast majority of women are unable to attain; using graphics software to soften every flaw, and even improve physical aspects such as lifted cheekbones, narrowed waistlines and plumped-up lips.

Psychologists say that this has caused many women to have a self-critical outlook on themselves, resulting in a loss of self-confidence and poor self-esteem.

In 2004, after market research indicated that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful, Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty, originally produced by Ogilvy & Mather Brazil. It started off as a  billboard campaign that featured ‘regular’ women photographed by Annie Liebowitz: the public were invited to vote on whether a particular model was “fat or fab” or “wrinkled or wonderful”… the votes being updated in real-time and displayed on the billboards.

Unilever, the owner of Dove, also published a study into women’s sense of self and identity. The study was aimed at creating “a new definition of beauty [which] will free women from self-doubt and encourage them to embrace their real beauty.”


The campaign created an immense buzz at the time, which Unilever estimated to be worth more than 30 times the paid-for media space. Thecampaign was extended to television and a website called The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, where several videos were hosted, examining issues such as young girls’ identity issues at high school, mother-daughter relationships, eating disorders etc. Around the world, leadership programs for girls and young women were sponsored by the beauty products company, further cementing its role as a spokesperson for ‘real beauty’.

In April this year, a video called ‘Dove Real Beauty Sketches’ was produced for the site, and rapidly went viral.  In this video, several women describe themselves to an ex-FBI forensic sketch artist while hidden from view. Then the same women are described by strangers who met them for a short while the previous day. When compared, the stranger had a more flattering—and more accurate—image of the subject.

The campaign hasn’t been without its critics (of course). The more hard-line of these have accused the company of being disingenuous, as the campaign still relies on its customers’ desires to beautify themselves. They point out that Unilever also markets Axe deodorant, a brand that tends to objectify women in its ads (albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way).

Dove’s most aggressive approach was to offer a free Photoshop plugin, supposedly for creating a beautifying skin glow. When the filter is applied, it reverts the picture to its original form, with the wording, “Don’t manipulate our perceptions of real beauty”. A potent message, that created a lot of media buzz.

The latest ad is a remake of one that was done by Dove in the UK and also shown here, but I think it has been a worthwhile exercise to do it in South Africa with South African women: it hits home, and it hits harder.

The concept is simple: the ad takes the form of a “vox pop” survey of women in a busy street. The title on-screen is: “Dove asked women, what do you love about your body?”. This is followed by various women saying “Ummm”; “That’s difficult”; “For me there’s definitely nothing” – with the attendant shrugs, sad faces and shaking of heads.

The next title is: “And then we asked, what do you love about your friend’s body?” – and of course, each woman’s friend can see something loveable about their companion: “Her freckles”; “Her dimples”; “Her bum” – and this time the response is full of laughter and warmth…

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these are genuine vox pops, not actors, in these scenes. They are just too natural and realistic, and I think that fits in with the ethos of Dove’s campaign. As a whole, the ad is really powerful: it hits an emotional chord, and will resonate for most of the target market.

Dove’s Real Beauty campaign has run for so long, because it has been able to take ownership of something unique, and present itself as an evangelist for the “Everywoman”. Combined with its community outreach programs, the brand has created a powerful, pro-consumer identity.