“From an early age women are exposed to statements and clichés, masked as advice, that dictate how we should look if we want to be accepted.” This is a powerful statement from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a marketing campaign aimed at revamping the world’s conception of what it means to be beautiful. Since 2004, Dove (a subsidiary of Unilever) has actively cast women of various races, ages, and body types in its advertising in an attempt to showcase “real” beauty while selling its hygiene, skin care, and hair care products. For example, in the short film “evolution,” a woman is shown getting hair, makeup, and ultimately digital enhancements for a professional advertising photoshoot. Here’s her transformation:
Quite a difference, right? The message here that the “perfect” models we see in the visual media aren’t real shines through nicely, and it is reinforced with the closing statement from this video: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.” Other ads from the Campaign for Real Beauty included these:
It would seem Dove truly sought to make a difference in the women and girls of the worldwide, to help them redefine themselves as beautiful in their own eyes. But, then, we have this:
A Twitter user made this image from a three-second GIF Dove posted to its Facebook page in which women change bodies and skin tones when changing their shirts, after she expressed concern to the company and received a generic response. The screenshot compilation quickly went viral, sparking outrage and outcries from the social media masses. The message here, whether intentional (as many suggest) or purely inadvertent is clear: Black is dirty, White is pure and clean. How does this ad come from the same campaign that promotes all-inclusive beauty?
Part of the problem here is that the ad is not shown in completion. Once the image of a black woman turning white went viral, Dove went on to apologize for “missing the mark,” and subsequently pulled the ad. In the third and final part of the video, the white woman is shown removing her shirt to reveal a Hispanic woman:
Shown in entirety, the commercial takes on a whole different meaning. It would appear Dove was attempting to be inclusive, after all—which was further stated in a follow-up apology. Why, then, did this commercial create such a huge reaction?
A large part of the public outrage has to do with the negative advertising campaigns against black skin in American history. There was a time in this country when lighter was better, and white was the ultimate standard of beauty. Ads like this one, which states, “Don’t let dull, dark skin rob you of romance,” portrayed the message that dark-skinned complexions were ugly and undesirable. At first glance, the Dove ad of late mirrors that sentiment, even going one step further as to suggest one can just wash away the darkness in a shower by using Dove. This ridiculous notion is inflammatory, and consumers were quickly incensed.
So, what could Dove have done to create an ad that truly celebrated diversity and inclusion for all? That’s a tough question, as race is a touchy subject. With a little more planning, however, and a little more thoughtfulness on how an ad like the one they recently released might be portrayed, Dove could’ve avoided this entire PR nightmare. With people all over the world now boycotting Dove products over a three-second ad, Dove stands to lose substantial revenue. Its reputation has been severely damaged, and it’s going to be a tough job to repair.
It’s essential to your business to target your desired demographic using ethics and positive advertising techniques. You need to carefully and thoughtfully craft your brand story. Get feedback before releasing any questionable ads—test audiences and market research are wonderful resources for this. Don’t make the same mistake Dove did: Make sure your ad will hit the mark right from the start!