Real Beauty? The Truths Behind Dove's Highly Acclaimed Advertising Campaign

by appi90 on February 26, 2017 - 5:38pm

About 10 years ago, Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty that featured a woman’s unique differences in using models of various body types and races. Introduced in 2004, the advertising campaign was a response to the fact that globally only 2% of women truly believed that they were beautiful (Celebre, Delton, Guadagno, & Wal 2014). Thus, Dove aimed to promote the notion that a woman’s body should be celebrated for its real curves and colors rather than be made a source of anxiety and lack of confidence. Although the advertisements sparked a global debate about feminine beauty standards and the abuse of retouched images in advertising, it is key to reflect on some of the truths behind this campaign’s intentions.

Although the advertising campaign is highly acclaimed by feminists and is seen as “a global effort intended to serve as a starting point for global change” (Cortese 69), it becomes important to note that Dove’s parent company is Unilever (Celebre, Delton, Guadagno, & Wal 2014). This company also owns Axe and Fair & Lovely, thereby associating Dove’s positive body image campaign with their degrading and humiliating ads reinforcing the stereotypical feminine beauty standard.

To begin, Axe promotes a clearly opposite view on the role of women in advertising as it uses the typical airbrushed models in sexual ways to “provide culturally sanctioned ideal types of masculinity and femininity” (Cortese 57), which are the stereotypes Dove attempts to break in Real Beauty. Known as the Axe Effect, the company launched a series of advertisements during the same timeline that Dove attempted to celebrate a woman’s real body.

A particularly popular set of ads pushing Axe’s shower gel have a man standing in the shower washing his chest alongside a woman putting whipped cream on her breasts; a man scrubbing his upper back alongside a woman holding a whip to her back; and a man cleaning his lower back as a woman ties a corset around her waist, all of them reading at the bottom, “The cleaner you are, the dirtier you get” with the Unilever logo in the top right corner (“15 years of Axe Effect: the world’s most sexist advertising campaign” 2011). These were released in 2011, when Dove’s revenue continued to climb amongst woman seeking a better body type while Axe created a stereotype for both masculinity and femininity (“15 years of Axe Effect: the world’s most sexist advertising campaign” 2011).

This begs to wonder whether Dove actually intended on making a difference in the lives of women or if it was simply a marketing strategy employed by Unilever – the parent company that both fosters and degrades the role of women on the same timeline. Therefore, it is no longer about the promotion of a positive body image; instead, this becomes a case of cause marketing, where the marketers use feminism – a cause that women are rooting for – in order to sell to this demographic.

This was actively proven when one year after the initial release of the campaign, sales went up by 20% so Dove continued using this “social commitment to women [to] [...] drive sales” (Joni 2011) leading to an increase in their revenue from 2.5 billion dollars in 2012 to 4 billion dollars in 2013 (Neff 2014). Therefore, there is a clear implication that Dove used the notions of feminism and positive body images in order to “drive sales” amongst the women who thought a difference was being made.  

Moreover, Unilever also owns Fair & Lovely, a company that aims to lighten darker skin tones by selling whitening face creams. Their advertisements depict mostly Indian women who cannot get the job they want, but the scenario is flipped after using Fair & Lovely creams (Celebre, Delton, Guadagno, & Wal 2014). Here, they dangle the idea that woman need to alter their physical appearance in order to belong in the workplace, but now Unilever is adding race to the mix.

Dove released a similar advertisement with a before-and-after skin chart; under the “before”, there was a black woman, and under the “after” stood a white woman, with a skin tone transition of other races in between. Under one of the images in this campaign, Dove wrote “Bye-bye black skin, hello white skin! Scrub hard!” (“In hot water again, Dove? Soap giant accused of racism over body wash advert” 2011). Although Dove quickly confirmed that any racism seen in the posters was inadvertent, their ads should be questioned as Unilever’s Fair & Lovely promotes the same ideas.

Father of two daughters, Seth Matlins, has taken action against Dove when rumours surfaced that they Photoshopped and retouched the images in the Real Beauty ads (Moss 2014). He petitioned that they disclose any retouching they did and put a rest to the rumors, but the company continues to dodge the questions. One of the men working on this campaign, Pascal Dangin, is quite outspoken about his Photoshopping and has been quoted as having “extensively retouched photos used in the Campaign for Real Beauty” (Neff 2008); however, the photographer, Annie Leibovitz, commented that “If there was a hair that was up in the air, that might have been the kind of retouching that was done” (Neff 2008). The truth of the matter has never been disclosed by this soap company, raising some serious concern about how genuine were the gendered messages they were conveying.

Overall, when a brand uses the notions of feminism to push products and is equally in business with companies that are known for their demeaning and humiliating portrays of women, further research into the campaign should be done. Unilever is comfortable using Photoshop and has presented racist and sexist ads. Thus, it becomes all about profit, and little about a real cause, making this fight for abolishing sexism in advertising seem superficial in the eyes of both the producer and the consumer of Dove products.

Nevertheless, although Dove took a step in the right direction and initiated a conversation about the global perception of femininity, consumers should petition for a change in the culture that insights a lack of confidence and anxiety promoted by the media’s perception of gender attitudes. In order to still sell the product, Dove needs to break ties with Unilever and disclose their use of Photoshop with a promise not to continue using it. This admittance would portray a sense of honesty and allow the consumers to believe that they are giving money to a company that cares about this cause.


Works Cited:

Celebre, Angela, and Ashley Waggonner Delton. “The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.” Edited by Rosanna Guadagno and Reine van der Wal, The Inquisitive Mind, Feb. 2014, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Cortese, Anthony. “Constructed bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising.” Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, 3rd ed., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, New York, 2008, pp. 57–89.

“15 years of Axe Effect: the world’s most sexist advertising campaign.” This is Not Advertising, Wordpress, 7 Nov. 2011, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

“In hot water again, Dove? Soap giant accused of racism over body wash advert.” Daily Mail, 25 May 2011, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Joni, Saj-Nicole. “Beware the Hidden Traps in Cause Marketing.” Forbes Leadership Forum, Forbes, 20 Oct. 2011, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Moss, Rachel. “How Real Is Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ Campaign? Online Petition Asks Dove To Disclose Their Photoshop Use.” Huffpost Women, The Huffington Post, 8 Aug. 2014, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Neff, Jack. “Dove's 'Real Beauty' Pics Could Be Big Phonies.” Advertising Age, 7 May 2008, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Neff, Jack. “Ten Years In, Dove's 'Real Beauty' Seems to Be Aging Well.” Advertising Age, 22 Jan. 2014, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.