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  Dove Gets Real   Pharma Co-Marketing: Possible Side Effects  Alicia Clegg  
Dove Gets Real To sustain the momentum, Dove has engaged a new group of "real" women to chip away at the "restrictive" and "unrealistic" images of beauty served up by rival firms. One woman is heavily freckled, another shows off a prominent scar, a third sports tattoos and body piercing. The message, as in earlier campaigns, is upbeat and inclusive: "all skin is beautiful when it is beautifully moisturized."
Dove's refusal to bow to aesthetic convention is a clever piece of branding, unifying its products around a compelling idea and setting Dove apart from rivals Johnson & Johnson and Nivea. But will the promise of real beauty draw women in, once the media brouhaha has died down?

Showing real women and realistic body shapes in beauty and fashion advertising aren't new ideas. The two approaches, though linked, aren't one and the same, however. A few years ago, the up-market mail-order brand, Boden, photographed customers alongside professional models in its glossy catalogues. At around the same time, Marks & Spencer ran advertising featuring "average" (i.e., larger) women, with whom it thought its customers would identify. Boden's customers, who all had great figures and looks, were a hit; Marks & Spencer's "realistic" models failed to catch on and were phased out.

The crux of the issue is what makes women feel good. One approach assumes that there are certain classic looks, which we would all secretly love to possess. When we see a beautiful model promoting a brand we respond imaginatively and, for a moment or two, feel beautiful too. Rationally, we know the product will not change us, but the power of association is so great that, deep down, we feel as though a little of the model's magic has rubbed off.

Opposed to this is the idea that contemporary, self-confident women want to see figures and faces like their own celebrated in advertising. The problem here, however, is that the whole thrust of consumer culture (the popularity of makeover programs, the phenomenal growth of Botox and cosmetic surgery) suggest that as a society we are becoming more, not less, obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. "People feel under pressure to improve their appearance, even at times, such as childhood, pregnancy and later in life, when, traditionally, it was OK not to bother," says Tamar Kasriel, head of knowledge venturing at the Henley Centre, a strategic futures and marketing consultancy.

So does that mean that, like M&S, Unilever has embarked on a highway to nowhere with its campaign for real beauty? Not necessarily, because Dove's campaign isn't just about representing women honestly in advertising. It's subtler than that.

Although it purports to be honest, Dove's marketing is the reality of reality TV, not of everyday life. The models—though not glamorous?have all been given the glamour treatment. This was most evident in the first two campaigns to promote Dove's masterbrand and firming products. As Russ Lidstone, head of planning at JWT in London, puts it: Dove's real beauty is "reality put on a pedestal."

Just as a reality TV turns ordinary Joes into stars for a day, so Dove's campaign elevates ordinary women into honorary beauties. "It's certainly not an indication that people are turning their backs on glamour," says Andy Nairn planning director at ad agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. "It's tapping into the idea that there are no limitations on what people can achieve these days."

By showing a wider range of skin types and body shapes, Dove's advertising offers a democratized view of beauty to which all can aspire. The campaign also has an implied moral purpose, one that takes on the ethical issues of consumerism: the psychology of self-esteem, the supposed link between the pressure to conform and eating disorders and the various stigmas attaching to old age and disfigurement. In email correspondence, a Dove spokesperson confirmed that the campaign primarily sought to elevate a woman's self-esteem. This dimension is most visible in the latest skincare advertising, which was shot in black and white, and features letters telling the personal stories behind featured women's blemishes and styles.

In the short-term, championing the cause of real beauty has been a PR triumph for Dove, winning media attention and applause from many women. Longer-term there is the possibility that, by adopting a campaigning stance, Dove will come to mean more to customers than its rivals in the same way that Fairtrade brands, the Body Shop, or even Virgin, appeal above the heads of their competitors because of what they stand for. But will this ambition be fulfilled?

Aspiring to be a thought leader in business is a gamble that doesn't always pay off. Benetton tried famously to associate itself with the idea of compassion and human fellowship, but was judged exploitive when it used images of AIDS victims to promote its fashions. Trainer brand Reebok goaded consumers to take up active lifestyles using surreal commercials, featuring a huge beer belly chasing couch potatoes down the street. The campaign was intended to make a point to which all could relate. But the down-to-earth message failed to inspire and, when set against rival Nike's focus on elite sporting stars, Reebok ended up looking mundane and un-heroic.

But, there are also success stories. One of the best examples of social engineering by a brand, says JWT's Lidstone, was BT's "It's Good to Talk" campaign, in which the character actor Bob Hoskins urged British blokes to overcome their aversion to trivial chat. The advertising, which was presented as being all about cementing relationships, proved hugely popular and is credited with having shifted men toward a more relaxed and "female" phone culture.

So why do some brands prosper by linking themselves to wider societal issues and others fail? Here are some conclusions about what it takes for a brand to become a thought leader in its field.

  1. The big idea has to fit with the brand's heritage and positioning. The Body Shop is credible when it takes on human rights, because it has a long history of championing ethical causes. Benetton merely looked cynical.

  2. The cause has to be one that consumers want to buy into.

  3. Execution is crucial. A big idea that is ripe for its time will stand or fall depending on how it is expressed. BT's "Good to Talk" campaign appealed because it gave men an excuse to buy into female telephone culture, without losing face. Reebok's belly campaign fell flat, in spite of people's worries over obesity, because its theme was too downbeat to inspire and to motivate.

Taking up the cudgels for reality is a risky strategy for Dove. The underlying idea is appealing; the difficulty is in how to express it. When Dove ran its masterbrand advertising, it was criticized by some for choosing unrepresentative "real" women—ninety-six year old, described by one marketer as: "the old lady equivalent of a super-model"; a heavily freckled, but enviably cute, twenty-two year old, and so on.

The latest campaign has a harder edge, tipping the balance away from aspiration toward realism. It may be more honest, but does its honesty leave women enough freedom to dream?




Alicia Clegg is a freelance journalist and writer based in the UK.

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