The Dove Real Beauty Campaign
In 2004, with sales at approximately $2.5 billion, Dove saw an opportunity to tap into women’s self-perceptions of beauty to address female insecurities while building a connection between women and the Dove brand (Bahadur, 2017; Neff, 2014). Dove had commissioned a research study on women’s priorities and interests that included 3,000 women from ten countries including the US, Canada, the UK, Italy, France, Netherland, Portugal, Brazin, Argentina, and Japan. The results concluded that as few as 2% of women actually considered themselves beautiful (Etcoff, Orbach, Scott, and D’Agostino, 2004; Jeffers, 2005).
Dove chose to counter the societal pressures that apparently played a role in this finding. Society had bombarded women with idealized images of themselves as reflected by advertisements of thin models and celebrity women (Cusumano & Thompson, 1997; Spitzer, Henderson, & Zivian, 1999). In society’s achievement culture, furthermore, from a young age girls had been stretched thin in juggling schoolwork and extracurriculars as well as family and social lives, and they had felt the need to be perfect in doing so (Homayoun, 2012). These pressures had further exacerbated problems associated with the idealized notion of girls and women and having thin bodies (Thompson, Coovert, & Stormer, 1999). As Bremner explained, “We’re hoping to inspire girls to realize they don’t need to change themselves and help build a more positive relationship with their own beauty” (Neff, 2015c).
This female socialization process extended from childhood into womanhood. As Olivia Johnson, strategic planner on Dove at Ogilvy & Mather (advertising and marketing firm) in London further explained, “We knew the way beauty brands behaved and the way they portrayed women wasn’t quite right…It makes you feel deflated when you see the gap between these images of perfection and your own physical reality” (Jeffers, 2005).
Dove chose to challenge these societal pressures through its positioning and branding strategies. Dove began its “Real Beauty” campaign by depicting ordinary women (i.e., no professional models) from diverse ages and ethnicities who had various “real” (i.e., ordinary) body types (Bahadur, 2017). This approach aimed to shatter the myopic view of feminine beauty as being limited to a thin model with perfectly applied makeup. Instead, it encouraged women to change the way they viewed themselves – while simultaneously recognizing their own beauty (Aaker, 2013). Citing statistics that were updated from the original study, Dove would later explain on its website:
Real Beauty Controversy
A subsequent 2011 Real Beauty promotion, however, did not generate such praise. With Dove sales over $3 billion (Aaker, 2017), the brand introduced its Dove VisibleCare body wash line with an online promotion depicting three young woman each wrapped in a towel (see Figure 1). The women stood in front of two large panels. One panel labeled “before” displayed a series of patterns consistent with dry cracked skin. The second panel labeled “after” displayed one overall pattern consistent with smooth moist skin. A small amount of blank space was seen between the two panels (Goldwert, 2011; Nolan, 2011).
The women were positioned such that in viewing the picture from left to right, their skin color became gradually lighter. An African American woman stood on the far left in front of the panel labeled “before.” A Caucasian woman with a particularly light skin tone stood to the far right in front of the panel labeled “after” (Goldwert, 2011; Nolan, 2011). The woman who stood between them also appeared to be Caucasian, with a skin color that was slightly darker than the light-skinned Caucasian woman. Being in the middle, she also stood in front of the space between the two panels.
Also of note, the two Caucasian women appeared to be positioned as if slightly facing each other. Doing so, left the middle woman’s back shoulder toward African American woman.
Critics quickly accused the ad – and, by direct extension, Dove – of depicting racist values that projected white skin as being more desirable than dark skin (Goldwert, 2011; Nolan, 2011). Unlike the consumer reactions to the previous Real Beauty campaign promotions, Dove now faced the possibility of brand avoidance, spawned by consumers disidentifying with and avoiding a brand that might be viewed as inconsistent with their self-concept and values as anti-racist (Lee, Motion & Conroy, 2009).
Consumer reactions to the advertisement had been seemingly worsened by the historical portrayal of African Americans within promotional campaigns. Such portrayals had included a decades-long history of depicting African Americans in a subservient, and unattractive light followed by more recent positive portrayals (Robinson, 2019).
One of the best-known examples of African American portrayals in marketing history was Aunt Jemima, whose face had been the symbol of the Quaker Oats brand for over a century. Although not specifically tied to “beauty,” has portrayal had further depicted African Americans in an unflattering manner. As shown in Figure 3, her image had historically illustrated an association between certain African American images and a lack of economic success.
It was not until the 1960s and the rise of the civil rights movement and the ‘black is beautiful’ campaign that advertisers began to modify their portrayal of African Americans. In the 1940s and 1950s over 93% of African Americans in leading magazine advertisements, for example, were depicted as below skilled labor compared to less than 7% for Caucasians. The disparity had lessened by 1967 to 28% of African Americans depicted as below skill labor (Cox, 1969).
After the 1960s, the use of positive black role models and themes had flourished. Numerous promotional campaigns had depicted African American people in very positive ways including the use of black celebrities such as Nike’s 1980s “Spike and Mike” campaign with Spike Lee and Michael Jordan or Pepsi’s “Street” campaign showing Michael Jackson perform his music. Numerous other brands had shown more everyday African American individuals and/or families in a positive light.
In 2006, P&G launched its “My Black is Beautiful” campaign in response to African American females having expressed perceptions of how their demographic was portrayed in the media. They believed they were depicted significantly more negatively than other demographic groups. Promoting various consumers brands over different advertisements, the campaign depicted a very positive portrayal African American women (Schultz, 2019).
These success other brands were enjoying from their positive African American portrayals, had seemingly further contrasted the public’s reactions to Dove’s 2011 campaign. For a brand that had tied its success to helping women realize their personal beauty – across all ages and ethnicities – the consumer accusations Dove was facing could have been incredibly damaging had the brand not responded very quickly.
Real Beauty Response and Subsequent Rebound
Dove immediately released the following statement:
We believe that real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and ages and are committed to featuring realistic and attainable images of beauty in all our advertising. We are also dedicated to educating and encouraging all women and girls to build a positive relationship with beauty, to help raise self-esteem and to enable them to realize their full potential.
The ad is intended to illustrate the benefits of using Dove VisibleCare Body Wash, by making skin visibly more beautiful in just one week. All three women are intended to demonstrate the "after" product benefit. We do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience.
A subsequent 2013 promotional video that became a viral sensation further allowed Dove to solidify its otherwise suddenly tenuous connection with consumers. Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” demonstrated how different the typical woman viewed her own beauty as compared to how others perceived her. The video showed a former FBI sketch artist drawing depictions of ordinary women as they described themselves (without the artist being able to see the women). He then sketched the same women based on descriptions provided by strangers. As illustrated in Figure 2 below, the artist’s sketches created from the description of the strangers were consistently more flattering than those created from the women’s descriptions of themselves (Berkowitz, 2013; Groce, 2013; Stampler, 2013). Within its first two weeks, the initial two versions of the video had each received over 35 million views (Aaker, 2013).
Despite competing in a highly competitive industry (Aaker, 2013), by 2014 Dove sales had skyrocketed to $4 billion (a 60% increase from pre-Real Beauty campaign levels) (Ciambriello, 2014; Neff, 2014). The brand was enjoying a lot of positives in a crowded marketplace. In 2015, Dove and Twitter worked together to launch the #SpeakBeautiful platform.
#SpeakBeautiful utilized Twitter technology to identify negative tweets about female beauty or body images during the 2015 Oscars. The Dove account then responded to those tweets in real-time to recommend users employ more positive expressions and comments (Bahadur, 2015).
Also, in 2015, another Dove promotional video, Choose Beautiful, became a viral sensation (Chumsky, 2015, Neff, 2015b). The video displayed signs posted above doorways in five cities: San Francisco, Delhi, Shanghai, London, and Sao Paulo. In each location, one door was labeled with a sign that read “Average.” An adjacent door was labeled with a sign that read “Beautiful.” The two doors each opened into the same location, so an individual entering that location could choose either door. At first, the vast majority of women chose to walk through the door labeled “Average” (Chumsky, 2015, Neff, 2015b).
By the end of the video, however, more women were shown entering the door labeled “Beautiful.” The video concluded with the women discussing their choices after having picked one of the doors and why they selected a specific option. A woman in Shanghai, for example, described beautiful as being too far out of reach to achieve (Neff 2015b). Conversely, women who had ultimately entered through the Beautiful door described feeling good about themselves for having done so. One woman, for example, described a victorious feeling of announcing to the world her belief in her own beauty (Chumsky, 2015). A picture of the doors with their respective signs is shown in Appendix E.
Latest Real Beauty Controversy
Dove’s 2017 promotion, however, seemed to place its valuable emotional connection with its customers at significant risk. The three second video opened with a young Black woman wearing a top that matched her skin tone. She quickly removed her top to reveal a young Caucasian woman wearing a shirt that matched her skin color. The Caucasian woman then removed her top to reveal an Asian woman wearing a shirt that matched her skin color. When the Asian woman removed her top, the original Black woman appeared. The video then displayed the three models in a continual loop that repeated the same actions in a consistent order.
Many consumers expressed immediate outrage. Online posts flooded social media with charges of racial insensitivity (at best) and racial bigotry/hatred (at worst) (East, 2017). Hashtags from angry consumers quickly went viral with messages lashing against Dove such as #DoveIsRacist and #DoneWithDove (Lubitz, 2017). Many offended consumers even called for boycotts of Dove products as #BoycottDove also increased rapidly through social media (East, 2017, Wootson, 2017).
Dove’s (and, therefore, Bremner’s) problems continued to worsene quickly as mainstream media outlets began reporting on the social media outcries. Fortune.com quoted one Facebook user as stating that Dove’s ad had implied “that the Black Woman is dirty and once you use Dove soap, you’ll be clean and White” (Bach, 2017). Fortune further quoted a Twitter user as stating, “OK, Dove…One racist ad makes you suspect. Two racist ads makes you kinda guilty” (Bach, 2017; Lubitz, 2017).
The Washington Post noted that online consumers were posting images from the Dove video of the Black woman removing her shirt to reveal the White woman (as shown in Figure 3). Previous Dove users, furthermore, were proclaiming they would never purchase Dove again. The Washington Post cited the following online rhetorical questions:
Was Dove saying that inside every black woman is a smiling, redheaded white woman? Was Dove invoking the centuries-old stereotype that black is dirty and white is pure? Or that black skin can or should be cleansed away? And perhaps the biggest question of all: Did Dove really believe that the ad would make more people of color want to buy its products?
The consumer outcry was skyrocketing at a time when advertisers had been recognizing the $1.2 trillion purchasing power of the African American community as well as the changing social structure in America (Weeks, 2017). According to Fiona Carter, chief brand officer of AT&T, “…there’s an ever increasing demand from customers to understand not just what products and services you provide but also to understand who you are as a company, what your values are” (Weeks, 2017). This promotion, however, had led many consumers to perceive Dove’s values as racist. Some even saw it as confirmation of suspected racist values that had been depicted previously.
For Bremner and her marketing team, questions of racism could have been highly problematic. For a consumer brand whose success was based on a strong emotional connection with consumers, these questions could have potentially been devastating. Having survived questions of racism once before, Dove’s emotional bond with consumers – a bond built on universal beauty – and its overall brand image faced a potentially perilous position (Dua, 2017). With #BoycottDove gaining momentum, Dove seemed to have hit a crossroads – one that demanded some type of response to its offended consumers.
1. Racial advertisement is a serious issue for any company and it hampers the brand image and its credibility among even the hard loyal customers, therefore, it is suggested that the company should respond to the customers. It should implement a PR communication strategy to address the racial stereotype image that it advertisement produces. The communication strategy should ask spokesperson of Dove Company to address this issue. The strategy recommended to the company is to communicate a message by spokesperson in media that the company is always promoting beauty diversity and representation of women in advertisement is a mistake committed unknowingly. The spokesperson should state regret for unintended offence that this advertisement has created on people. Such statement in media can salvage the prestige and can manage the damage to corporate reputation. The spokesperson should say in media that the product is made for every woman but its presentation went wrong and the company is deeply regretted for such mistake. Such statement can pacify the anger of people who believe that Dove promotes a racial stereotype advertisement.
2. The campaign should be dropped immediately because there is widespread anger and protest by people against Dove Company. Many existing customers are not willing to purchase products from the company if such campaign is continued. Thus, it is feasible for company to drop this campaign to maintain its corporate image. If the campaign is planned to be continued, then demonstration of black woman, Caucasian woman and Asian woman must be changed. A Caucasian or black or Asian woman should be presented showing how moisturizer of face is changed with product use. Dove should avoid showing ads with preferential treatment to white skin in its ads. It should focus to convey message that its products make skin moisturized and shinier. The color of tops used by model should also be changed such as black girl should wear a top of Caucasian women color and Caucasian women wearing a top of black skin color. The presentation of advertisement should also be changed such as Caucasian woman should appear first in the ads and then black woman should emerge if the same advertisement is continued. These considerations can help the company to continue with such advertisement.
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