Deodorant is one of the many products that Dove sells. [Photo by Lindsay Brennan]
By Lindsay Brennan
The first time Tara Boase saw the Dove beauty ads, she was sitting on her living room couch watching Youtube videos.
A friend had sent her a funny video, with accompanying text urging her to watch. So after spending an hour crunching numbers on an accounting assignment, Boase was attempting to do just that.
But, as is so irritatingly the case, an advertisement popped up and began playing before she could watch the video.
That video was the Dove beauty ad.
The ad was a part of the Dove Beauty campaign, an international marketing campaign that was launched by Dove’ parent company Unilever in 2004. The aim of the ads were to celebrate the “natural beauty and physical variations between women,” while inspiring girls to have the confidence to be comfortable in their own skin.
One of the more popular ads, “Sketches,” depicts several subjects describing themselves to a forensic sketch artist, who was not able to see his subjects. The same individuals are then described to the artist by complete strangers, who only met the subjects the day before. The two sketches are then compared, with the stranger’s image inevitably being more flattering and accurate. The goal of the ads being to show that how women see themselves is often much more critical than how the world views them.
“Market research done by Dove at the time showed that only 4 per cent of women actually consider themselves to be beautiful.”
“The first time I saw the videos, I was shocked,” said Boase, who is a fourth year business student at Carleton University.
“It was just so different than the ads you normally see on TV. As a woman it gave me such positive emotion. I felt empowered and motivated that such a large company like Dove was going against the grain in their commercials. It was quite refreshing to see.”
Taking a Look at the Numbers
Market research done by Dove at the time showed that only 4 per cent of women actually consider themselves to be beautiful. Dove saw an opportunity for a campaign, which became very successful, increasing company sales from $2.5 billion U.S in its augural year to $4 billion U.S today.
In a 2014 strategic report, Unilever noted that Dove was their biggest brand, boasting double-digit growth in their deodorant sales. They also noted that the Dove beauty campaign, specifically the sketches video, had become the most watched video advertisement for the company following its launch in April 2013. It achieved more than 175 million views in a single year.
Similarly, in an article released by Fast Company media in October 2011, it was reported that sales of Dove in the United States and abroad increased as a result of the campaigns by 700 per cent.
But why do these numbers matter more than a decade after the campaign’s release? Why is this campaign still relevant today?
Because this is a case of a major corporation sending a positive message via advertising to women of all ages. Although some have dubbed it a cheap marketing tactic, the ads are a departure from the norm, which often tells women they don’t measure up.
And Boase agrees.
“As women we are constantly being bombarded with magazines featuring models and actresses who look perfect,” said Boase. “This can be extremely demoralizing to women who may not have what they feel like is their ideal body. The Dove ad makes women see that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, that everyone is special.”
Hearing from the Experts
“Back around 2004, Dove decided to re-define or refresh their brand,” said Dr. Michael Mulvey, a marketing professor from the University of Ottawa.
“They took it to a more abstract or emotional level, the idea of authentic beauty. What they’re trying to do is hit women at an emotional level, they’re saying that you’re already a beautiful person, so they’re not going to change who you are because the essence of you is still very beautiful. In a way it was a very positive affirmation for people in the target market.”
“The easiest most obvious way to position a brand in the marketplace is around a functional benefit, so the product does something for you.”
Mulvey, who specializes in consumer behaviour and how individuals perceive, and respond to advertising, points out that in some ways, Dove is not doing anything new. “In some respects, they’re using an old classic way of positioning a brand. The easiest most obvious way to position a brand in the marketplace is around a functional benefit, so the product does something for you.”
Criticisms of the Brand
Despite its success, the Dove beauty campaigns have also faced a lot of criticism. Unilever also produces many other products which are decidedly not as about channeling one’s inner beauty. For example, Unilever also owns Axe hygiene products, which are largely marketed to young men through the overt sexualization of women. Unilever also produces “Fair and Lovely,” a skin-lightening product marketed at dark-skinned women in several countries.
Mulvey points out however, that if consumers really have a problem with a certain type of advertising that they are seeing, they aren’t being forced to purchase the products.
“There’s something to be said about truth in advertising, but honestly consumers are the ultimate arbiters of truth. They judge whether or not it’s valid, or if it matters to them. Certainly the people who buy into the Dove message of authentic beauty, they believe it’s truthful or else they wouldn’t be buying the brand. Likewise the young teenagers trying to impress women for the first time in their lives, they’ve got their own insecurities and fantasies. That’s all that Axe is doing there, is playing to male pubescent fantasy, and they’re doing a great job.”
Mulvey goes on to point out that advertising is about fantasy and goal-fulfillment, which is all that Unilever was trying to do in that case.
“It’s very democratic, you vote with your dollars. So if you don’t like the message, or you think the message lacks truthfulness or authenticity, you go buy somewhere else, or you don’t spend your money at all. Most advertisers recognize that consumers are entitled to their opinions, and will behave based on their beliefs.”