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.
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 here, here, here 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.