The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has been called a lot of things, from a “game changer” and “a breath of fresh air”, to “hypocritical”, “sexist”, and “sneaky”. So why has the campaign, whose major innovation was to use ads that featured real women rather than airbrushed models or celebrity spokespersons, sparked so much controversy? Taking a social psychological perspective, this article attempts to address the good, the bad, and possibly even the ugly side of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.

Dove launched the “Campaign for Real Beauty” in 2004, in response to the findings of a major global study, The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report, which had revealed that only 2% of women around the world would describe themselves as beautiful (Etcoff, Orbach, Scott, & D’Agostino, 2004). The main message of the Dove campaign was that women’s unique differences should be celebrated, rather than ignored, and that physical appearance should be transformed from a source of anxiety to a source of confidence. This message was delivered through a variety of communication means, including TV commercials, magazine spreads, talk shows, and a worldwide conversation via the Internet.Despite the immense popularity and commercial success of the campaign, it has also been subject to much criticism. Many critics have relentlessly questioned and brought into focus the campaign’s mixed messages, which have left some consumers feeling ambivalent towards the Dove brand. On the one hand, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty can be viewed as espousing a positive message, with the goal of changing women’s attitudes toward their perception of beauty. On the other hand, consumers are also aware of the campaign’s conflicting goal, one that is imperative and alike to all advertising campaigns, which is to increase sales.  Taking a social psychological perspective, this article will attempt to address the good, the bad, and possibly even the ugly side of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. The goal of the article is neither to praise nor admonish the campaign, but simply to examine the complicated nature of advertising in today’s society, and to motivate consumers to take an educated stance with regard to advertising campaigns. How many of the ads you enjoy (or at least tolerate) actually reinforce stereotypes, or contribute to lowered self-esteem? It is an issue worthy of reflection.

The Good

One of the greatest achievements of the Dove campaign is that it initiated a global conversation to widen the definition of beauty. The main issue being targeted was the repetitive use of unrealistic, unattainable images, which consequently pose restrictions on the definition of beauty. Dove sought to change the culture of advertising by challenging beauty stereotypes; they selected real women whose appearances are outside the stereotypical norms of beauty (e.g., older women with wrinkles, overweight women). The real women were attractive and likeable to their female audience because they were relatable and provided a “fresh” perspective within the media. The campaign’s success is evident in the tremendous publicity that it has received, for example, with the models being asked to appear as guests on many popular American talk shows, including The View, Good Morning America, The Today Show, Ellen, and Geraldo. Media exposure has provided $150 million in free media time for Dove’s campaign (“Grand Prize”, 2007). The campaign has also been the recipient of numerous awards. For example, the online video “Evolution” won two Cannes Lions Grand Prix Awards in June 2007 at the Cannes Lion International Advertising Festival in France. Furthermore, “Evolution” received over 1.7 million views during its first month, making it the most viewed video on YouTube in October 2006. Overall, much of the campaign’s success can be attributed to it being the first digital campaign to drive participants to a supportive online community that reached over 200 million people worldwide, with over 26 million people participating in the campaign online (Springer, 2009). As proposed by Vivek, Beatty, and Morgan (2012), the engagement of customers (or potential customers) through the online campaign may build trust because “individuals will feel that the company cares about them and has their best interests at heart” (p. 135). 

From the editors

Angela Celebre and Ashley Waggoner Denton’s article was very thought provoking. In reading the title, I made some initial evaluations about the ad campaign, in my mind, before reading the article. Then, reading through their article, I expanded my thoughts and feelings toward the ad campaign. Given the evidence presented from previous studies, I am now unsure about how I feel about the campaign overall. What do you think? It is interesting how social psychological concepts can have simultaneously good and bad effects, as elicited through ad campaigns. Does “the good” outweigh “the bad”?

In analyzing “the good” of the ad campaign, Celebre and Denton apply the concept of social comparison. They suggest, and provide empirical support, for the idea that self-evaluations are higher when a target model is deemed more similar to the self. As such, it is important that “realistic” body type examples of women are displayed positively. I think this is an important point, as women represented in music, tv, and movies often set an unrealistic standard to compare oneself to. In addition, women that would be considered “real” often play negative roles in such media. I feel like these ads and proper, positive depictions of women of all sorts can have positive effects for society in general. They give girls and boys a positive image of women which could change public perceptions of “ideal” bodies and women and perhaps positively affect the treatment of women in society. What other positive societal outcomes may arise from such depictions?

On the other hand, “the bad”, as suggested by Celebre and Denton, is that these sorts of campaigns depicting the “real woman” can also have negative effects on body satisfaction in women (young and old). This makes sense to me, as well. As noted, some women and girls may still not live up to the standards depicted. A shocking note in this piece suggests that the Dove campaign was still very restrictive in casting! Moreover, the campaign may serve as a reminder of the thin body ideal. This is one point that struck me while reading this article. By using the term “real women”, it almost seems as if it might be increasing the salience of the difference between “most women” and “truly beautiful women”. A reminder that they might be “uglier” than what the majority of the media deems “ideal”. This may not be the case for most women, but it is something that came to my mind while reading this piece. What do you think about this issue? Further, I would wonder who gets to decide what a “real” woman is. Aren’t all women “real” women?

Finally, Celebre and Denton discussed “the ugly” of the ad campaign. Dove is owned by Unilever, which also owns other brands like Axe. Therefore, on the one hand, Dove is trying to empower women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicity, but on the other hand, Unilever is potentially objectifying women in the Axe campaigns. One must ask at this point, is it all about the money? In my opinion: Of course it is. However, does it matter? Many social scientists agree that the idea of pure altruism does not exist. That is, deep down, all helpful or positive behaviors (particularly from corporations in the business of making money) have selfish motives. Ask yourself, though, if they are doing good and increasing some women’s self-image, does it really matter what their motives are? How else can the dissonance that results in learning about the Dove and Axe campaigns be reduced? I would like to hear your take in the comments section on this and the other issues raised in the article.

Adam Fetterman
Associate Editor

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