Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign: An Incomplete History

It’s the year 2004. The turn of a new millennia and come and gone (sans apocalypse) and the American beauty industry is steeped in dated advertising practices. The aim of its marketing is simple- to create a sense of anxiety around the very normal process of aging, the reality of weight difference, and any skin ‘imperfection’.

Dove (a Unilever brand) has expanded its line beyond the popular bar soap of the 1960s, but is seeing sales steadily declining. It’s loyal customer base has aged up, and dragged along the reputation of Dove with it. Wanting to seem less like your mother’s soap, marketing partner Ogilvy & Mather senses the winds of change swirling around them. There is an entire untapped direction for advertisers and brands to exploit.

The cause-based advertising campaign was not a new concept, but Dove was a pioneer among beauty brands. And what was the cause they chose to champion? Self-esteem.

The company launched research into self-esteem and beauty standards for women, with Harvard professor Dr. Nancy Etcoff at the helm. Her research revealed that out of more than 3,000 women in 10 different countries, only 2% of those surveyed freely described themselves as beautiful.

One clear signal of that a new movement was rising globally was the creation of the iconic Dove Real Beauty campaign in 2004. This campaign that has spanned 16 years and produced hundreds of pieces of image and video content, caught sight of a shift in ideology, and harnessed it successfully by carefully crafting a cause-based campaign that empowered women rather than attacking them. The aim of this research was not only to discover a new direction for the business, but to lend “scientific credibility to the team’s hypothesis that the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable.” The Real Beauty campaign was soon launched off the back of these findings.

Ogilvy and Dove were not going to take a timid approach to marketing Real Beauty. Creative director of Ogilvy, Jeorg Herzog- known as the Dove Pope for being so sympathetic and shy- was responsible for leading the team. An article on his personal website explains that he wanted to “show real beauty from real life” in Dove’s new creative ventures, showcasing the human body as it is and insisting that it is beautiful. In a 2005 article from Adweek strategic planner at Ogilvy & Mather of London, Olivia Johnson, recalls that the team “wanted to democratize beauty and make more women feel more included in its definition rather than excluded”. She remembers the way the advertising spoke directly to “all these women that actually have felt a degree of demoralization or annoyed by the imagery around them”.

These goals were pursued in billboards, magazines, YouTube videos, and phone screens for years to come.

The campaign was launched with a series of striking billboards. These ads featured untouched photos of women who had features that might be considered flaws- freckles, wrinkles, wide thighs, flat chests, grey hair. Alongside the images were checkboxes asking the viewer whether they think, for example, if the woman pictured is ‘wrinkled’ or ‘wonderful’, ‘fat’ or ‘fit’. The visual arrangement didn’t include any product images, but utilized a good deal of negative space and the color white in order to keep the focus on two things- the woman and the provoking text.

These billboards also had phone numbers listed on them which allowed a passerby to call in and vote on which adjective you thought described the woman better. Live counters near the billboard displayed the number of votes cast for each adjective. At first the negative adjectives seemed to dominate, stirring up media attention and conversation which caused people to rally behind these billboard women- voting flipped.

The ads diverged from past strategy (boring ads images of women posing with their products and walls of text) by utilizing something called the water cooler strategy, opting not to include product information in favor of relying on excitement caused by the billboards to cause people to talk amongst themselves about the brand.

This launch was explosive and Dove sailed on to release billboards across major U.S. cities featuring women of all shapes and sizes standing in their underwear, gleefully smiling at onlookers. A 2005 NBC article discussed public reactions to the campaign as being mixed. Gina Cristani, a model for the ads who was scouted on the street, explained that the pictures were a source of empowerment for young women who felt they were outside the standard of beauty. She felt that the message of the ads was to tell them that they were “normal and beautiful”. A columnist for Salon.com had a sarcastic and critical take about Real Beauty, stating that “Yes, when I think of putting beauty in perspective for girls, mostly I think of suggesting that they shell out for three separately sold products that will temporarily make it appear that they have less cellulite”.

The next major Real Beauty campaign would come in 2007- the Pro-Age campaign. The target of these ads were older women, a demographic of people that had been (and still is largely) ignored by the beauty industry, except to pester with ominous warnings of wrinkles and graying. Pro-Age spread its efforts across TV and magazine ads.

Print ads for the campaign featured nude, older women in a clean and simplistic composition. The text used was small, scarce, and centered- surrounded by plentiful negative space or superimposed on top of a large image. The product line was subtly shown in these ads, in a small line-up towards the outside edge of the spread. On TV, a clip would play showing older women completely naked but censored and posed in ways that wouldn’t upset regulators. Their bodies were on full display- wrinkles, age spots, and all. Despite the clips not showing any ‘intimate’ parts, major TV networks were banning Dove’s commercial for indecency- which in turn caused an uproar from the public. Journalists pointed out that equally revealing commercials of younger women were allowed to run.

The buzz around Pro-Age put the hypocrisy of television networks on full display, revealing the fact that older women had to have their bodies retouched to be seen as acceptable for TV and print media. Product sales increased 700% in Europe and 600% in the US in just six months after this campaign was released, a testament to its reach and positive reception.

The advertisements of the early 2000s pushed Dove into the spotlight, yanking it out of a slump and associating the brand with body positivity. However, not all of Dove’s ad campaigns have been so positively received as those early works.

A prime example of this decline is their limited-edition bottle re-design from 2017. The idea behind this project was to celebrate the many shapes and sizes of women’s bodies through their product line, crafting bottles in different heights and widths. The form of the bottles was intended to suggest the shapes that bodies take- a concept that sounds viable enough but proved unpopular. Critics found the bottles to be unrealistic, especially the bottles meant to mimic larger bodies which were bizarrely short and squat. The bottles were a flop, seen as an oversimplification of a bigger issue- an obvious corporate ploy.

On their UK site, the company explained that “six exclusive bottle designs represent this diversity [of bodies]: just like women, we wanted to show that our iconic bottle can come in all shapes and sizes, too”. The redesign was an attempt to connect the cause campaigns that the company was acclaimed for with the actual product. Past strategy had worked to indirectly connect the brand to an idea in order to draw positive press and consumer interest, but now they were drawing fire for a project that read more marketing than meaningful.

Consumers felt that Dove was no longer “actively listening and engaging with audiences”, something that had been a cornerstone of past ads. Dove was starting to lose some public support, but would look to social spaces to revitalize the brand.

In 2019 they launched the #ShowUs campaign, which sought to put power back into the hands of creators and the public and reconnect Dove with ‘doing good’. Instead of talking at consumers, they postured as listeners by using the powerful tool of social media- a space where everyone can create content and share it with a broad audience. The company invited consumers to share authentic images of themselves alongside the hashtag #ShowUs. Digital billboards in major cities then displayed these photos, inviting the everyday girl to become a Dove girl.

#ShowUs was also a partnership between Dove and two other entities: the first, Girlgaze Network, is a company that empowers women and non-binary creatives by connecting them to work opportunities and connecting brands to talent; the second, Getty Images, is a major BritishAmerican media company that sells stock photos, videos, and audio. These partners would take away the stages and the sets of stock photography and get out into the real world by asking women and non-binary photographers to submit stock photos, thereby creating a more diverse and inclusive catalog of images for brands to use.

We can draw a variety of conclusions from examining Dove’s Real Beauty advertisements- not only looking at the campaign itself but looking at the reactions to it, and context surrounding it. There has been a mixed response to the campaign and body retouching movement in general over time, with critique surrounding the negotiation between cause and corporation. Should we applaud the brand for addressing serious issues? Should we assert that as a company, every action they take has the end goal of profit?

Whether or not they are “a corporation in feminist clothing” (discussed at length in this scholarly article) is debatable, with many women struggling to accept “politics appropriated by corporations”. Dove Real Beauty has been described as “inauthentic engagement with feminist ideas” because of its primary goal to sell products and its potential to make women feel as if they are part of a larger movement by buying their soaps and shampoos. In a way Real Beauty also worked to “reinforce the significance of being ‘beautiful’ in mainstream society” by showcasing women that, while not fitting the standard of perfection, are conventionally attractive. The brand also insists that beauty itself is a thing that women should be concerned with.

In this way it positions beauty as a democratic good, rather than questioning the idea of beauty itself. If the essential state of being a woman is still tied up in her appearance, is Dove doing something transformative at all?

Whether or not you agree about the ethics and message of the campaign, it is undeniable that Real Beauty has been highly influential, and while Dove was not the first company to explore body positivity they were one of first to create a powerful international campaign around the subject. The rebranding efforts and bold ads led to the creation of a style and methodology that has inspired numerous other brands.

In 2014 Aerie launched the #AerieReal campaign- a print, in-store, and social media campaign that refuses retouching the bodies of their models. In 2018 CVS introduced the Beauty Unaltered campaign, an in-store and digital advertising campaign that calls for “a healthy self-image” to be passed “on to the next generation”. Their “Beauty Mark” is a heart shape logo that is places on every photo where the bodies and appearance of their models has not been retouched. In 2020 Olay introduced the Olay Skin Promise, a pledge that promises to remove all skin retouching from their advertisements by 2021, which would make them “the first mass skin care brand in the US to make this stance”.

The online impact of Real Beauty was also palpable, with “thousands of blogs and Internet chat forums [showing] a rich diversity of public dialog” surrounding body positivity, feminism, and Dove. Some endorsed Dove for their “stand against stereotypes of beauty” while others took a critical look at the company, questioning the campaign’s “sincerity, its objectivity, and its motives”.

Today, the history of Dove and the cause campaign can serve as a case study for designers, marketers, and beauty brands to learn from. Hopefully, young professionals are able to research and grow beyond Dove’s mistakes, while discovering ways to take past tactics into the future.

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A designer and soon-to-be graduate sharing opinions and research on art, design, and life as a young professional.

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Katie Cocca

A designer and soon-to-be graduate sharing opinions and research on art, design, and life as a young professional.