Marketing to Women August 26, 2020

From Beauty Bar to Marketing Powerhouse

An In-Depth Look Back at Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.”

Twelve years ago Dove boldly asked women to rethink their concepts of beauty. As it turns out, the brand’s award-winning advertising strategy—still going strong more than a decade later—has been a thing of beauty itself. This highly successful campaign continues to garner attention with each new installment it introduces. The “Campaign for Real Beauty” grew out of a 2004 survey of more than 3,000 women in 10 countries, sponsored by Dove parent company Unilever. The results were startling. Only about 2 percent of the women interviewed thought of themselves as beautiful. Dove, the brand most associated up until that point with its rather staid moisturizing Beauty Bar, saw an opportunity to reframe the discussion about female attractiveness. Olivia Johnson, strategic planner with Ogilvy & Mather, the agency responsible for the Dove campaign, observed, “The team’s intuitive sense as human beings was that [traditional beauty advertising] made them feel a bit demoralized and a bit miserable. It makes you feel deflated when you see the gap between these images of perfection and your own physical reality.” Fernando Machado, Unilever global brand vice president, told the New York Times that the mission of the campaign was “to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.”

Weighing In on Female Features

The initial phase of the campaign was built around a series of interactive outdoor billboard ads that invited those who viewed them to vote on whether the women on the billboards—not models, but a cross-section of average females—were “fat” or “fab,” “gray” or “gorgeous,” “wrinkled” or “wonderful.” Anyone who saw the tick-box signs could vote online, and as the campaign unfolded, a real-time tally of percentages was displayed next to the images on the billboards. Within weeks the “Campaign for Real Beauty” website had 1.5 million visitors, and Dove realized that the conversation it had sparked was long overdue and was going to feature a crescendo of voices.

It makes you feel deflated when you see the gap between these images of perfection and your own physical reality.

What strikes us about the opening salvo in this unorthodox ad campaign—and what no doubt accounted for the ad’s resonance—was its use of authentic women who were a far cry from the usual faces of a beauty brand. At the time, this was a fairly novel approach; these were not the sorts of visages we were used to seeing staring out from billboards on our morning commutes. We embraced the opportunity to view images of women who reminded us of ourselves, our friends, our mothers, and our grandmothers in all our authentic glory—with full figures, graying hair, and a smattering of freckles across our cheeks. We saw ourselves in these ads, and that was a refreshing twist. Dove’s pull-no-punches directness invited women to address the very subjects they grapple with themselves as they look in a mirror. The online buzz was immediate. Women who viewed the ads found the focus on real and relatable subjects a welcome, new direction for a marketing drive aimed at females. Dove had our rapt attention. We looked forward to what might be next.

The “Evolution” Transformation

One of Dove’s next moves was an eye-opening video posted to the Real Beauty website that featured a young woman whose appearance was dramatically transformed via makeup, hair styling, lighting effects, and digital manipulation. “Evolution” was a powerful depiction of just how readily a woman’s outward appearance can be altered to conform to advertisers’ expectations. The clip and its tagline—“No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted”—served as a salient reminder of the unrealistic standards of appearance the beauty industry has traditionally imposed on women.

'Evolution' also grabbed the attention of the judges at Cannes Lions in 2007.

The video, which went viral before “viral video” was even a term (YouTube had just been introduced the year before), was effective on several levels, with its hard-hitting message and dramatic depiction of beauty enhancement. As it shined a light on how models become camera-ready, it gave us pause. The message was succinct, a story—or, perhaps more accurately, a cautionary tale—told in minimal words. The young woman in the video morphed from average-looking to knockout-stunning in just a matter of minutes (thanks to time-lapse photography). The clip left a lasting impression, one we hope viewers call to mind when they see supermodels in ads flaunting their billowing beachy waves and flawlessly made-up faces. “Evolution” also grabbed the attention of the judges at Cannes Lions in 2007, where it “took top honors in both the Cyber and Film categories [the first time in the event’s history], pointing to the colliding worlds of consumer-powered digital distribution and brand building.”

Teach Your Daughters Well

The video took center stage again in Dove’s 2007 “Onslaught,” an 80-second clip that encouraged parents to “talk to your daughters before the beauty industry does.” The juxtaposition of naturally lovely young girls at the start and close of the video with a dizzying cascade of female-centric fashion photos, weight-loss depictions, and plastic-surgery scenarios drove home an inarguable point: Society bombards all of us—including impressionable young girls—with images of impossibly perfect women, often as unnaturally thin, scantily clad, made-up bombshells, while at the same time offering up hundreds of products and procedures aimed at “improving” our own outward appearances. The message was unmistakable: Before they’re old enough to read the magazine copy or fully comprehend the voice-overs, little girls are exposed to narrow definitions of female beauty. What we found compelling about this video was the opening shot: an extended close-up of a young girl’s delightful, fresh face, accompanied by the frenetic “Here it comes. Here it comes” lyrics. The brevity of the clip and its unambiguous message also drew us in. In a scant nine words—“talk to your daughters before the beauty industry does”—Dove made a point every parent needed to hear: Challenge the conventional stereotypes of beauty that your young girls will inevitably encounter. And do so sooner rather than later.

Real Beauty Personified

The “Real Beauty” campaign gained traction with the introduction of a billboard series that featured groups of “real,” diverse women—sizes 6 to 14—in their underwear. One of the original women to take part was Gina Crisanti, who was approached by a talent scout while she was taking out the trash.She jumped at the chance to join the campaign so that she could help other women feel confident about their bodies. “I grew up not being happy with my body shape and size at all. I hated being curvy. I hated having big breasts. And I hated having curly hair,” Crisanti told NBC News. “In my 20s, I realized all those [ideas] were simply self-destructive. Once I started to develop an alternative definition of beauty, all of it started to fall into place. It’s all about how you shine.” 

Crisanti, it appears, not only represented Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, but she also embraced the very message her billboards were communicating. The ads were appealing for several reasons. Most women could relate on some level—similar hair texture, body shape, skin color, or height— to at least one of these very genuine women. We’re fans of the racial diversity that took center stage, but we were a bit disappointed that a wider span of ages wasn’t represented. (The original six women ranged from 20 to 26 years old.) The message, however, was once again powerful and resonant: Widen your definition of beauty and be proud of your body, regardless of its shape, size, or color.

Once I started to develop an alternative definition of beauty, all of it started to fall into place.

Gina Crisanti

The ads kept the discussion of female self-acceptance front and center, catching the attention of counselors and social workers, among others, who used them as a tool as they worked with clients facing eating disorders and body-image issues.

Revealing Sketches

In 2013, the campaign took a deep dive into perceptions, exploring the difference between how women view themselves and how others see them. The “Real Beauty Sketches” video featured FBI-trained forensic artist Gil Zamora sketching composites of women based on the facial features they described to him. His companion sketch of the same subjects used descriptions provided by strangers who had earlier spent time with the women. Zamora’s subjects invariably exaggerated their least favorite features and played down or ignored characteristics the strangers observed. 

The artist heard comments like “My mom told me I had a big jaw,” “I kind of have a fat, rounder face,” and “I’d say I have a pretty big forehead.” The finished sets of sketches, displayed side by side, were a study in contrasts. The image Zamora produced from the stranger’s observations in every case was more flattering—and more accurate. The strength of the “Sketches” campaign was its emotionally charged content that magnified a phenomenon not often addressed in mainstream advertising: how we as women tend to ignore our true beauty and focus instead on our flaws. It forced women to consider the almost universal tendency to be our harshest critic, and to contemplate—if not actually embrace—being a bit gentler when it comes to our appearances. 

The video’s message truly touched a nerve, and those who viewed “Sketches” were anxious to share what they had seen. In its first month alone, the video was shared 3.74 million times (one share for every 30 views), ranking it as the third-most shared video, according to figures compiled by viral tracker Unruly Media. As the most watched video ad of all time, “Real Beauty Sketches” continues to be a cogent reminder to women that “You’re more beautiful than you think.”

It Hasn’t All Been Beautiful

Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” while an eye-opening, conversation-generating social phenomenon, has not been universally hailed. From the beginning, critics have been quick to point out the disconnect between Dove’s focus on “real beauty” and the promotion of such products as SlimFast, Axe, and Fair & Lovely skin-whitening cream by the brand’s parent company, Unilever. Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media and News and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, told the Huffington Post: “[These products] could not possibly exist if women actually as a demographic believed the principles at the campaign’s core. Cellulite cream would not exist if women believed they were beautiful and enough as it is.” Others have taken aim at one phase of the campaign that came across as rather disingenuous. 

The “Patches” project, a classic example of the placebo effect, explored what would happen when women wore a patch on their upper arm that they were told would make them feel more beautiful. Participants kept video diaries documenting their beauty-patch journeys, and as the experiment progressed, all the women appeared convinced that the patch’s promise was being fulfilled. At the conclusion of the program, the women reacted—with astonishment, in most cases—to the news that the patch’s secret image-enhancing ingredient was actually “nothing.” We have to agree that this foray took the female-empowerment message in a less-than-convincing direction. Surely these women had to have been at least a little skeptical about a mysterious beauty patch that would magically improve their self-images. Magic beans, anyone? C’mon, Dove. This time around you insulted our intelligence, a move that’s never beautiful. (Read more about this and other empowerment-marketing efforts in this 2014 Britton Blog.)

Beauty Beyond the Ads

Twelve years into the campaign, we applaud Dove for keeping the conversation moving forward. The message is as relevant as ever, as new generations of young women confront their own perceptions and measure their reactions to ads geared toward females. We believe that Dove’s message, for the most part, has been on point. We’re gratified that the campaign extended beyond TV screens, billboards, and print ads. (Dove produced “Daughters,” an online series of interviews to enlighten mothers about the kinds of personal questions their teens want answers to.) 

And Dove is to be commended for creating a fund to partner with organizations like the Girl Scouts and the World Association of Girl Guides to spearhead discussions about self-esteem and body confidence. “A product-based affair was never going to [affect change],” Janet Kestin, former Ogilvy & Mather creative director, told the Huffington Post. “The goal is to alleviate pressure on the next generation.” These words are a thing of beauty, and something we can all rally around.

Photos: Shutterstock

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