Monthly Archives: March 2011

“Real Beauty” and the Promotion Paradox

Marketers have long believed that effective advertising taps our subconscious to trigger emotions, motivate deeply held desires and offer messages of aspiration. If you want to sell basketball shoes, feature them on an airborne Michael Jordan. If you want teenage boys to buy cigarettes, then who better than the iconic Marlboro Man to represent their association with rugged masculinity and freedom? And if you want to sell lingerie, perfume or makeup to women and girls, offer up the idealized image of the Hollywood celebrity or supermodel.

In other words, product promotion aims to produce a consumer experience based on fantasy, feeling and fun. Product functionality — what it actually does, how it performs, its durability, etc. — is less important for the purposes of promotion than the symbolic values it connotes. Does what you wear, the car you drive, the food you eat or the designer drugs you take make you feel or appear independent, sexy, athletic, in control, cool, Canadian, or cosmopolitan? The objective of advertising is to fuse the symbolic attributes of a brand with the psychosocial needs and desires of the consumer. Because ads are the stuff of daydreams, they are carefully designed to manipulate our anxieties and appeal to our aspiration for a life that’s free of social conventions or constraints. “People are living lives of desperation,” says trends consultant Gerald Celente. “They don’t want to be themselves.”

Although the aspirational model of advertising is still dominant, its influence across product fields and genres has waned in recent years. In part this is due to a changing economic landscape. As the New York Times reports, the deterioration of the global economy has driven many leading marketers to abandon the fantasy model of advertising for a more populist feel – indulgence is out, austerity is in.

But it also reflects a cultural shift, a move away from the desire for fantasy toward, apparently, the embrace of authenticity. It reflects what some perceive to be a consumer desire for ads that feature people just like them doing the things they like to do. This is a shift born not just from hard economic times but, perhaps, from popular discontent with what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse called the culture industry’s system of “false needs.” The preference of some consumers to see real people in product marketing stems from a rejection of the idea that we might be so one-dimensional that a cleverly conceived marketing ploy, and not our capacity for rational decision-making, actually determines our purchasing behaviour.

Real Beauty

In some respect this cultural shift frames the context behind the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Launched in 2004, the campaign was premised on the notion of promoting a more “democratic” view of female beauty that eschewed fetishized femininity in favour of “real women with real bodies and real curves.” Dove commissioned research by Harvard professor Nancy Etcoff and feminist author Susie Orbach, which found inter alia that only 2 percent of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful. This was a powerful message and provided a unique marketing opportunity for Dove’s creative agency Ogilvy & Mather. Attention-grabbing billboards, print and TV ads, an interactive website, and a travelling photo exhibit, were the main vehicles used to generate and encourage a conversation that, Dove hoped, would not only lead to more progressive attitudes about female body image but also increase sales.

More than 1 million women worldwide visited the Campaign for Real Beauty website within the first year; the Media Awareness Network, a nonprofit organization in Canada that promotes media literacy, developed lesson plans for school teachers to talk about body image and the impact of the Dove campaign; the “real beauties” who were the ordinary “stars” of the campaign became overnight celebrities on the TV talk show circuit; Ogilvy & Mather was awarded a Grand Effie prize in 2006, a top industry award for effectiveness in advertising; and the campaign generated a considerable amount of earned media attention (and thus audience impressions). In the short term, sales figures pointed to a big win – according to a CBC report, the campaign generated double-digit growth for the brand in the second quarter of 2005. Dove sales rose 11.4% in the first quarter of 2005 and Dove’s total U.S. dollar sales rose 6% to $500 million.

Building on its initial campaign Unilever recently launched a new initiative called the Dove Movement for Self-Esteem. With this new program, the company aims to build “a world where women everywhere have the tools to inspire each other and the girls in their lives.” If the concept behind the first campaign was to challenge media misrepresentations of beauty, the successor campaign is premised on the notions of mentorship and capacity building. In this sense, the current program purports to represent a more tangible form of corporate responsibility by promoting relationship building and dialogue, not only with its consumers via product marketing but also through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and by recruiting third party endorsement from key influencers, such as prominent mommy bloggers.

Not So Beautiful

Despite the pro-social messaging of these campaigns, they have not escaped criticism. Advertising executive Mary Lou Quinlan accuses Dove of being risky and, from a sales perspective, ineffective: “If we’re all fine the way we are, we don’t need to buy anything. That’s not what marketing is about”.  In other words, if women feel perfectly content about how they look and feel, why should they spend their money on moisturizers, skin toners and firming creams? The point of beauty products marketing, Quinlan argues, is to convince people they want to look younger, have smoother skin, and look more attractive. Calling the Campaign for Real Beauty “a very expensive public service announcement”, Quinlan notes that after an initial bump in sales, profits eventually dwindled. This was a case, she suggests, of effective public relations undermining successful marketing.

Pursuing a line of cultural critique, Carleton University professor Eileen Saunders argues (in my co-edited media studies book) that Dove’s confrontation with the beauty myth may be effective from a PR standpoint, but it’s also less than altruistic. She critiques the premise of the campaign for continuing to reinforce the norm that beauty is a disciplinary project requiring women to treat their bodies as a work in progress: “the supermodel may have been displaced by the ‘real woman’ in the Dove campaign, but the beauty ideal she represents has not been displaced.” Saunders argues that we should be skeptical of the campaign’s “seductive rhetoric” because, in the end, the ability of women to attain real beauty is still located within the act of consumption. While Dove may be positioning itself cleverly “as a socially aware company whose feel-good values we can applaud,” its premise of democratizing beauty still “obscures the fact that we are being invited to vote with our dollar.” For Saunders, the campaign is not a case of “celebrating real beauty” so much as “telling us where we can buy it.”

A third criticism explores the hypocrisy of advocacy advertising in a global context. Nonprofit technology blogger Claire Kerr takes the Dove campaign to task in a series of posts (here and here) that coincided with the launch of “Dove Dishes”, an event which brought together prominent female bloggers and journalists to talk about the social pressures facing women and girls and to promote the Movement for Self-Esteem (you can track the Twitter conversation at #DoveDishes). Kerr is most unsettled by the fact that Dove’s parent company Unilever also owns several brands that aggressively trade on the unhealthy body image the Dove campaigns claim to target, particularly in other parts of the world.

If raising ‘global self-esteem for women’ was a genuinely important objective for Unilever, why do they run SunSilk ads telling [Filipino] girls that if they have dry hair boys won’t want to touch them?


How, Kerr asks, can we take seriously Dove’s belief that we should “imagine a world where every girl grows up with the self-esteem she needs to reach her full potential” when sister company Pond’s draws on highly racialized anxieties to promote skin-lightening creams to girls in Asia? How can we take Dove seriously, she asks, when it invites us to “imagine a world where every woman enjoys feeling confident in her own beauty” when another Unilever brand, Slim-Fast, so flagrantly preys upon the female body image anxieties Dove seeks to dispel? And how are we to take Dove seriously when it asks us to “imagine a world where we all help to build self-esteem in the people we love most” against ads for Unilever products like Axe deodorant, which objectify women as sexualized objects? Kerr argues that Unilever is deeply hypocritical and more than cynical for using Dove’s benevolent messaging to challenge the unrealistic body image ideals that it’s other product lines create and sustain.

Promotionalism As Its Own Problem

How do we come to terms with the gap between Dove’s progressive messaging and the criticism from marketers, academics and other observers?

Unilever has clearly been successful in using promotional communication to craft an identity that is both socially conscious and fashionable. Its strategy of using ordinary women to advertise its line of Dove beauty products, of partnering with nonprofit organizations and third party advocates, of commissioning research and hosting offline events, expands the meaning of both its corporate image and the cause it seeks to advance. Its products and brand name, its identity, and its activism on behalf of others (in this case, women and girls) all feed into the company’s promotional mix. The integration of its product marketing and business responsibility efforts allows Unilever to represent itself as a concerned corporate citizen promoting both community building and conversation as solutions to social problems.

The criticisms against the Real Beauty and Self-Esteem campaigns represent the reflexive character of corporate promotionalism. On the one hand, promotionalism is a solution to the issues of corporate communication and identity: in this case, helping a beauty industry company develop a unique and competitive market position while advancing a pro-social agenda that takes the industry’s own myth-making to task. At the same time, the criticisms discussed above also show that corporate promotionalism can “bend back” on Unilever in the form of new communication problems that result precisely from the side effects of its success. The success Unilever has achieved in promoting Dove as a prominent, socially progressive brand, is precisely what makes it a high profile target of critique. Its claim to stand for such values as individuality, self-esteem, confidence and opportunity for girls plays well in one part of the world, but these are values that appear less than genuine when other brands owned by the same corporation manipulate the physical and emotional anxieties of girls in other parts of the world.

Corporate promotionalism operates primarily in civil society where citizens exercise their agency as consumers. Will the side effects of Unilever’s success with its Dove campaigns create a marketing dilemma, affecting profits over the long term (as Quinlan suggests) or a credibility dilemma, as Saunders, Kerr and others (see hereherehere and here) argue? It’s difficult to know whether these critiques will have wider resonance — however, because corporate identity circulates in the public sphere where its meaning cannot be completely controlled, and because promotionalism trades on a currency of trust and credibility, both Unilever and Dove would be well advised to take them seriously.

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Canada’s Public Relations State

In November 2010, The Hill Times reported a significant, if largely ignored, transformation in the apparatus of government. Citing data from Public Accounts, it showed how over a period of three years, spending on communications in the Prime Minister’s Office had steadily risen by 30 per cent to nearly $10 million per year. The biggest chunk of this spending was on personnel, with 22 per cent of the budget going to pay the salaries of the 26 people employed as PR strategists, officers and assistants in the government’s most powerful office.

Canadians will be forgiven for not taking notice. After all, this example of political journalism did not arrive by leak or following several months of investigative reporting. Rather, it came from the close reading of an accounting ledger — hardly the stuff of scandal or intrigue, despite its significance.

Setting aside the irony that this increase in spending came from a ruling bloc that considers itself the party of small government, there are very good public policy reasons for increasing the communications budget. An accelerated news cycle; the political activities of business interests, unions and NGOs; the amplification of partisan bickering within Parliament; the growth of social media; and the rise of specialty news outlets representing increasingly important ethno-cultural groups: together, these factors present an assemblage of opportunities and constraints for communicating the work of government to Canadians. Arguably, it’s never been more difficult for a government to communicate with its citizens.

Critics argue that this rise in PR spending is typical of a government obsessed with message control and they decry the decline of a democracy in which an increasingly influential cadre of spin-doctors appear to be manufacturing crises for no other reason than to justify their own solutions. Illustrative of this position is the Globe & Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson, who wrote that “although centralized control of messaging has been a growing feature of governments in many democracies nothing in Canada has come close to the attention, time and effort the Harper government puts into managing and manipulating information and image-making.”

Notwithstanding the importance of such a critique, it misses the more important point that increased spending on PR may be fueling a transformation in the institutionalization of communication within the very heart of government. It’s a process that in a different political context the sociologists David Deacon and Peter Golding called the rise of the public relations state. For them, the increased spending on government PR offered insight into more than just the importance of packaging policy. It represented a new necessity in which government had to structure the playing field in such a way that privileged its position in the ongoing battle to manage and control public discourse, not only during election campaigns but in the periods between.

For Deacon and Golding, the institutionalization of government PR was not an evil in itself. Rather, it was problematic to the extent that it increased the likelihood of blurring “the conventional division between public information and party propaganda”. There are plenty of recent examples where this line has been approached, if not crossed altogether. The Conservatives over-zealous promotion of the Economic Action Plan at the same time as a major pre-election partisan offensive is but one example. The sponsorship scandal that effectively ended a period of Liberal hegemony is a more obvious one.

Given the current political climate, a federal election appears imminent. The Conservative government has been cited for contempt of Parliament; allegations of corruption continue to dominate headlines; negative attack ads are increasing with frequency; and the nations leading pollsters are competing every day to frame the political horse race and its likely outcome. The war for hearts and minds has reached a fevered pitch. Although public relations spending cannot guarantee the outcome of a campaign, it certainly influences the possibility of success.

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