Published in the Summer 2006 issue • Features
Is Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” a cash-grab or the real deal?
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Dove is a major brand, owned by Unilever, a multinational corporation that sells food, home and beauty products and that, in May, boasted first-quarter pre-tax profits of almost $1.9 billion. Dove’s new marketing push, which is focused on “real” beauty, is very clever: it has brought the company loads of free publicity as newspaper writers buzz about seeing “real women” being promoted as beautiful.
And it seems that Dove’s commitment to “real” beauty is more than skin deep—the company has set up the Dove Self-Esteem Fund to support programs that boost young women’s self-image. It also made a donation, at the time of the mall exhibit, to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), a great organization concerned with the socio-cultural factors that can influence disordered eating, including the damaging messages of beauty and fashion ads.
Dove even commissioned a study that surveyed 3,300 girls and women aged 15 to 64 in Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US to “explore self-esteem and the impact of beauty ideals on both women’s and girls’ lives.” It’s pretty impressive coming from an industry that’s usually only interested in what shade of red gets women most excited.
The report found that 90 percent of women want to change something about their physical appearance, usually their weight. Sixty-seven percent said their negative body image prevented them from participating in “life-engaging” activities like going to school or speaking out about something. Enraging stuff, and Dove has based its confidence-boosting efforts on this information.
Still—and product pitches at the end of thoughtful photo exhibits are an obvious reminder of this—it’s tough to believe that Dove’s efforts are altruistic. After all, they’re doing this to sell, sell, sell. And when you take a deeper look at the brand, underlying corporate contradictions begin to emerge. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns the Slim Fast meal-replacement milkshake brand, which encourages people to skip meals to lose weight. That message doesn’t jive with Dove’s “celebration” of women of all shapes and sizes.
And then there’s Axe, another member of the Unilever family. Axe is a line of fragrances for young men described on its website as “coolly seductive,” a brand that has “established itself as the world’s top male grooming brand by coming up with a constant stream of new ideas to keep guys a step ahead in the mating game.” Those new ideas include the over-the-top, overtly sexist “Axe Effect” ads, which feature ultra-thin, hyper-sexualized women uncontrollably lusting after some dude wearing Axe.