If you Facebook, I don’t need to recap for you the now-famous Dove “real beauty sketches” ad because your friends have already littered your feed with it. It’s now got over 16 million views on YouTube and is an undeniable hit.
Despite this campaign’s considerable success, and despite this particular advertisement’s brilliance, I have a problem with the ad. I think it’s very effective, but sleazy. Others have covered off on why this thing sucks from a feminist perspective. Here are some of the better pieces by thoughtful people:
- Salon’s Erin Keane wrote, “Dove’s just selling deodorant and soap in a new way, while peddling the same old beauty standards as empowerment.”
- Jazz wrote, “So you’re beautiful… if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes. If you’re fat or old… uh, maybe other people don’t think you look as fat and old as you do yourself? Great? Oh, and by the way, there are real women who look like the women on the left. What are you saying about them, exactly?”
- Ann Friedman of NY Magazine wrote, “These ads still uphold the notion that, when it comes to evaluating ourselves and other women, beauty is paramount. The goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies.”
So I won’t retread that ground. For my own criticism, I’ll focus on stuff that people aren’t noticing, and I’ll use a secret weapon, Linkedin, to do it.
So let’s dive in. First, it’s clear that the ad wants us to believe that there’s something scientific about the way the sketches were created. There’s the emphasis on the sketcher’s credentials (Gil Zamora, we’re told, is an “FBI-trained forensic artist”). There’s the curtain that divides the artist from the subjects, “we couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see us.” There are no lab coats in the ad, but this setup is designed to make the viewer suspend disbelief.
Indeed, Gil Zamora’s Linkedin profile looks legit. But then I came across an interesting line in his profile: “My technique relies on the forensic artist to be an advanced interviewer to glean unbiased information from the eyewitness.”
How is, then, that an “advanced interviewer” created the sort of biased sketch he says he’s trained not to produce? How is it that he used his advanced techniques on two witnesses and came to such different sketches of the individual? We can’t know for sure, but I’d say it has to do with the fact that Zamora knows which side his bread is buttered on, and could hardly resist steering his sketch results towards the outcome that his employer — Dove — wanted. Zamora claims to have 16 years of forensic art experience. He’s experienced, then, in producing non-biased, court-ready sketches that don’t lead to charges of bias by defendants’ or prosecutors’ lawyers.
Indeed, in the Standards and Guidelines for Forensic Art and Facial Identification published by the International Association for Identification (April 2010), there’s clear guidance that Dove could have used to strengthen the quality of the comparison. This guideline applies to multiple sketches produced as a result of multiple witness accounts:
“When possible, a different artist who was not present for the production of a previous sketch by any of this group of witnesses and who is not shown any of the preceding composite sketches should be used for each witness in order to avoid cross-contamination of the images by the artist. The experienced artist will be aware that there is no reason to believe that the first sketch of this particular offender is the most accurate portrayal possible. There is, therefore, nothing to be gained by producing a second image that has been influenced, however slightly, by the first.”
In other words, Dove could have and should have had the second portrait created by a second artist. What’s more, they could have had an external party hire the artists and could have kept the artists free from biasing information. I think there’s a high likelihood that a Dove marketer encouraged Zamora to lean on the scales a bit so that the second portrait would be more comely than the first. Dove might have even fully briefed Zamora beforehand, in which case the results are completely manipulated.
Second, there are a couple of well-known cultural phenomena that have nothing to do with whether women are their own worst critics. In most societies, humility is a desirable trait. In every major culture and religion humility — the quality of being modest about oneself – is a virtue. We all understand that other people will like us more if we don’t boast about ourselves to them, and most of us (narcissists excepted) play ball by these rules.
Compounding this natural and healthy bias on the results is our desire to be likeable. The subjects of this ad were told “to get friendly with this other woman” who had been present before their sketching session. Is it really surprising that the “other woman” didn’t sit down and detail the flaws of someone she just met? Again, it’s part of civilized society that you don’t criticize someone’s physical looks moments after meeting them. It’s only polite to avoid overly critical statements about someone you just met, especially when asked to describe that person to a stranger. Plus, all of the women in the ad are actually fairly attractive — not surprising given Dove’s approach to recruitment for this campaign (Dove wants “real women” but only if they’re “flawless”).
Ok, so now comes the fun part. In discussing this on Facebook, one of my friends defended Dove’s marketers, writing, “Big mega corporations are made of many individuals. I don’t doubt that those working on this campaign really thought they were doing a good thing and that the ends justified the means, and probably loathe their Axe counterparts (for both their advertising as well as their way more awesome Xmas parties.”
That comment made me curious. Is it true that Unilever marketers are siloed like this, and that there’s a cultural schism between those who produce the famously sexist (and brilliant!) Axe marketing and those who produce this Dove advertising? Could it be that Dove marketers are really aiming for social change, rather than aiming to make women feel insecure in order to sell more beauty products?
These questions led me to Linkedin, where I searched for people that used both “dove” and “axe” keywords in their profiles and who currently or previously worked at Unilever. I found, in short, that there’s a lot of internal mobility between the Dove and Axe brands at Unilever, and that multiple individuals work on both brands simultaneously. In other words, the people producing Axe marketing are the same as the people producing Dove marketing:
- Jeremy Adams, currently Sr. Marketing Director at POM Wonderful, formerly Unilever, was responsible for Axe’s P&L and “led marketing campaigns for a dozen new products including the AXE Detailer Shower Tool, “The Fixers” line of body spray and body wash, AXE’s top shower gel variant (Shock) and a new 18oz line of shower gels.” While at Unilever, Adams also “Developed and launched Dove Visible Care line of body wash globally including range architecture, packaging, claims, Authority PR program, advertising and global roll-out plan.”
- Ricardo Pimenta, currently Global Brand VP at Unilever, formerly “led a team of 25 people” while “responsible for Deodorants in Latin America (Axe, Rexona, Dove).
- Tomomi Mimura, currently Manager, Consumer & Market Insights, USA Hair Care, responsible for “Brand Building / Mix Deployment Consumer & Market Insights Manager for Axe Hair, Dove Hair and TRESemmé.”
- Todd Tillemans, currently SVP Customer Development at Unilever US, previously “VP General Manager, US Skin Care” where he was responsible for “1.7 Bn skin care business, including Dove, Axe, Caress, Lever2000, Suave, Vaseline, Ponds, Q-Tips.”
- Gail Legaspi-Gaull, currently founding principal at Hat Trick 3C, formerly “managed marketing operations, brand strategy, advertising, and new product development for several of the world’s biggest brands (Dove, Vaseline, Axe).”
I could list many more examples — I found over a dozen results with my first search that confirm that Unilever marketing is organized such that marketers for Dove and Axe (and other Unilever brands) are one and the same. Sure, there are likely specialists that only do one brand or the other — but there’s enough evidence for me to conclude that we’re not seeing some uniquely enlightened marketing from Unilever, but instead a very excellent execution of a campaign that speaks quite well to a specific psychographic: the average American woman who’d like to look nice but who’s turned off by (or aged out of) the intensely youth- and sex-oriented marketing that’s common with other beauty brands.
I should pause here before I go into my next bit to say that I don’t think Unilever is particularly evil. Nor do I think their marketers are particularly evil. I think they’re fairly brilliant and excellent at manipulating the consumers that they’re paid to manipulate in pursuit of profit. I’ve long loved the Axe ads for how well they speak to 15-year-old boys and their fantasies (the Axe/Lynx ad “Billions of Women” is a great example of every boy’s fantasy). I respect these men and women for the quality of their marketing. Unilever has one of the world’s best marketing organizations full of very sophisticated and qualified marketers.
I’m just saying that I find the Dove advertising particularly deceitful because it tries to position itself as an experiment that sheds light on some facet of our unhealthy society. In fact, it’s just more of the same beauty marketing that’s been preying on gullible women for years, and to see it shared on Facebook as some sort of enlightened thing that people should “show to their daughters” makes my stomach churn. As a friend of mine wrote on Facebook, “That’s not science, it’s fraud. Theater is OK, but they stepped over the line when they put on the lab coat.”
It’s not just this one advertisement where they’re trying to position Dove as enlightened. They’ve dedicated part of the Dove US site to explaining their “Social Mission.” There are activity guides for girls and moms to do together. Here’s an example for an activity for a mom and 11-year-old girl to do, called Real Beauty Spa Day: “Spend an entire day together and enjoy pampering yourselves. Turn a room into your very own at-home spa where you can do manicures and pedicures, mud masks, massages, have a healthy lunch and sip smoothies. Relax and watch an uplifting movie together. Use the opportunity to spark a meaningful discussion–ask her how she feels when she takes care of her appearance, which are her favorite or most unique features and what she likes best about herself. Teach her that looking her best and taking the time to treat herself is an important part of feeling good.”
Dove has even succeeded at getting this “Real Beauty” marketing inserted into school curricula. I consider this mindblowing abuse of the public education for marketing purposes.
Because Unilever marketers have attempted to position their brand as socially conscious and enlightened, they open their brand up to closer scrutiny along multiple new dimensions.
Let’s look at some of those dimensions that people who care about society and the world tend to also care about.
- Environmental record: Wikipedia’s entry seems good enough to conclude Unilever’s not doing enough. To be fair, Unilever claims that “Unilever and Dove® ranked among the Top 10 Greenest Brands list in the annual ImagePower® Global Green Brands Survey, one of the largest consumer surveys of green brands and corporate environmental responsibility. (June 9, 2011).” But really, shipping plastic all over world is green? On what planet? Plus, it’s possible that if you’re spending millions of dollars producing sexy videos constantly telling people you’re a socially conscious brand, you might do well on a survey like this.
- Animal testing: Dove tests its beauty products on animals, according to Peta. This seems unconscionable from a brand that positions itself like Dove does. Writes Peta, “Hundreds of thousands of animals are poisoned, blinded, and killed every year in archaic product tests for cosmetics, personal-care products, household cleaning products, and even fruit juices. Although more than 1,300 companies have banned all animal tests, some corporations still force substances into animals’ stomachs and drip chemicals into rabbits’ eyes. These tests are not required by law, and they often produce inaccurate or misleading results—even if a product has blinded an animal, it can still be marketed to you.”
- Health effects: Dove products rank “high hazard” according to the EWG Skindeep Database. No fewer than 78 Dove products use fragrances that are ecologically toxic, that cause allergic reactions, that irritate the skin, eyes and lungs, and that are organ-system toxic. Four dove products use propylparaben, a chemical that has the following concerns: “Developmental/reproductive toxicity, Ecotoxicology, Endocrine disruption, Allergies/immunotoxicity, Use restrictions.” How is it socially responsible to encourage women of any age to slather themselves with this stuff?
I could go on, looking at Dove’s record off charitable giving, the labor conditions in the factories where this stuff is bottled, the diversity of their executive staff, and so on, but I think I’ve looked at this thing deeply enough to conclude that Unilever isn’t really doing things differently with Dove, they’re just saying they’re doing things differently.
I find this sort of false concern for social impact particularly galling, and that’s why I spent a few hours of my vacation trying to discern if the company’s marketing messages are more than skin deep. Apparently, they’re not.
So, to wrap this up:
- Dove’s first pitch: Ladies, you’re all more beautiful than you think! Strike one — girls aren’t valuable only when they’re pretty. And why must you define beauty so narrowly and conventionally?
- Dove’s second pitch: our society’s unhealthy, as proven by this experiment we conducted! Strike two — Dove manipulated the experiment to achieve marketing goals. Plus, If Dove’s marketers really believed in changing society, then they would refuse to contribute to Axe’s infamously sexist marketing.
- Dove’s third pitch: We’re a socially conscious brand! Buy our stuff to contribute to the change you want to see in society! Strike three — Dove’s got a lot of cleaning and greening up to do before they’re able to truthfully parade about in those clothes.