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). 

Within the context of body image, social comparison theory states that people will make automatic comparisons to people and images that they perceive to represent realistic goals to attain and be motivated to achieve these goals (Festinger, 1954). Following from this theory is the idea that our self-appraisals can be affected by others’ characteristics. For example, it has been shown that when psychological closeness is manipulated, whereby the subject and target share similar attitudes and values to a high degree, the subject’s self-appraisal is consequently more favorable after viewing an attractive same- sex target than after viewing an unattractive same- sex target- this is due to the virtue of perceived similarity to the target (Brown, Novick, Lord, & Richards, 1992). This effect has also been studied in terms of perceived similarity to a thin model, which found that women who perceived similarity with a thin model felt better about their bodies than those who did not perceive similarity (Young, Gabriel, & Sechrist, 2012). The notion of perceived similarity, within the context of social comparison theory, suggests that those who are considered similar are assimilated to the self. In relation to the Dove campaign, it could be assumed that these “real” women are perceived as overall similar, leading women to engage in these assimilative processes. This would result in women being more likely to report higher self-evaluations when the target has desirable traits and lower self-evaluations when the target has undesirable traits. Therefore, in assuming that these “real” women of the Dove campaign possess desirable traits, and these assimilative processes have occurred, the advertisements would have a positive effect on women’s self-appraisals, and generally make women feel good about themselves.

Beyond simply making people feel good about the company, what Dove has so successfully done is reframe the function of purchasing their beauty products and toiletries from one focused on utilitarian outcomes (such as the quality and price of the products – things that are virtually never mentioned in the ads) to one that is focused on expressing important values and connecting with others. In the attitudes literature, these are respectively known as the value expressive and social adjustment functions of attitudes (Katz, 1960; Smith et al., 1956). Feeling positively about Dove, and purchasing their products, allows women to show that they too believe society’s values regarding beauty need to change, from a focus on outer appearance and the “thin ideal”, to a focus on inner beauty and confidence. Evidence that the campaign has increased brand loyalty includes the fact that in 2006, two-thirds of Dove’s sales were generated by people who bought more than one Dove product, double the number from 2003, before the start of the campaign (Neff, 2006). Purchasing Dove products also enables customers to connect with the millions of women around the world who they see (either on television or online) responding in similarly positive ways to the campaign. One way in which people engage online is through Dove’s Self-Esteem Toolkit, another positive aspect of the campaign.

Dove’s Self-Esteem Toolkit is an online resource that includes workshops, activities, guides, and videos all aimed at building girls’ self-esteem. In addition to the online videos, these activities and workshops also reflect the advertising campaign’s mission, which is to redefine beauty. It is well known that self-esteem is linked to body image, particularly for adolescent girls (but also for adolescent and adult males, e.g., Choma et al., 2010, Petrie et al., 2010, and older women, e.g., Marshall, Lengyel, & Utioh, 2012).  For example, Etcoff and colleagues (2004) found that 6 out of 10 teenage girls believed they would be happier if they were thinner. Research has shown that the internalization of the thin ideal can occur as early as three years old (in a sample of US girls; Harriger et al., 2010), and it has thus been recommended that programs aimed at countering such ideas (for example, by having girls argue against the thin ideal, see Stice et al., 2006), be implemented as early as possible (Grogan, 2010). This is recognized by Dove, for example, in their “Onslaught” video which ends by encouraging parents to “talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does” and provides links to their online resources aimed at helping parents initiate such conversations. As positive as this message may seem, there may also be some downsides to Dove’s initiatives, which we turn to now.    

The Bad

Though we have discussed social comparison theory from the perspective of “the good” in Dove’s campaign, the story is unfortunately not that simple. We will now further our discussion and turn to how social comparison theory can also be understood and applied within the context of  “the bad”. Numerous studies have shown that adolescents look toward people that they see on TV to define what their own bodies should look like. The aversive impact is as follows: the more they compare themselves, the more they strive to be thin, the more they dislike their own bodies, and the more they engage in unhealthy behaviors (Botta, 1999). Furthermore, studies have shown that self-esteem can moderate the effect of social comparison on women’s body image (e.g., Jones & Buckingham, 2005). Due to these findings, many self-esteem initiatives have attempted to teach adolescent girls to avoid comparisons with models because they are fake, airbrushed, photo-shopped, and unhealthy. However, this potentially leaves young adolescent girls vulnerable to making comparisons with “real women”, such as those in Dove’s ad campaign. This prompts the question, “Could Dove’s ad campaign potentially be even more harmful than traditional ad campaigns?”—due to the fact that young girls may still feel like they are falling short in comparison to the “real women”, but have not been taught buffer techniques towards these types of ads. Moreover, it has been suggested that women viewing commercials that include average-sized models might experience greater self-awareness of their own bodies due to the explicit focus on “real” women, triggering a fear of fatness. Also, these women may still be reminded of the thin beauty ideal even when viewing average-sized models, heightening their general awareness of beauty ideals (Anschutz, Engels, Becker, & van Strien, 2009).

One study conducted by Swami and Smith (2012), investigated the impact of a lifestyle television program that seeks to promote positive body image through the use of “real women” in comparison to a program that emphasizes the thin ideal. Participants in both experimental groups reported more negative body-focused anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction after watching the programs. Therefore, these “real women” television programs that are thought to evoke positive feelings toward women’s body image actually have the same aversive impact as television programs that promote the thin ideal.
 The authors suggest one possible explanation for their results is that when “real” women are used in these TV programs, they remind women of the difficulties in achieving the thin ideal. This subsequently activates a higher self-awareness and fear of fatness, resulting in an increase in body-focused anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction. Although this study did not investigate the impact of the Dove campaign explicitly, the results and discussion are generalizable to Dove’s ads because they share the same goal as lifestyle television programs.

Heiss (2011) leveled a strong critique with specific regard to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, drawing on feminist-disability theory, a framework to analyze and critique social systems and material practices that stigmatize certain kinds of bodily variations (i.e., people with disabilities). The key motives are forging positive identities and promoting the inclusion of women with disabilities in mainstream society. Heiss argues that these types of campaigns whose aim is to promote positive body image in fact represent an ideology of “naïve integration”. This type of ideology espouses an acceptance of diverse body types, but at the same time reflects traditional beauty standards. For example, Dove sought to challenge dominant beauty norms by depicting "real" women with "real" curves in their advertisements. However, it is argued that these “real” women appear similar enough to pre-existing ideals that they too would be accepted by most beauty standards, suggesting a failure on Dove’s account to truly widen the definition of beauty. Furthermore, she argues that in neglecting to include a woman with a disabled body in their campaign ad, Dove fails to ascribe value to certain (“very real”) body types and instead reinforces traditional understandings of the body and of beauty. This is evident in Dove’s casting calls, which read: no tattoos, no scars, flawless skin, beautiful hair, and bodies that fall nicely between “not too curvy” and “not too athletic” (Odell, 2010). Moreover, there have also been claims that Dove engages in digital re-touching of their ad campaigns (Helm, 2008), explicitly in contradiction of their ad campaign’s message. Heiss (2011) suggests that these campaigns turn instead to an ideology of pluralism, which reflects respect for cultural diversity and encourages people to maintain their unique subjectivities, for example, with respect to disabilities. The adoption of this ideology could be achieved through the inclusion of a woman with a disability in one of Dove’s advertising campaigns.

Though few may describe Dove as “representing an ideology of naïve integration”, many people certainly feel the same way, recognizing that Dove promotes both positive body image but also traditional beauty standards. In other words, the Campaign for Real Beauty can be viewed as being hypocritical, which may lead people to experience cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, consumers might purchase Dove because it promotes a good message; on the other hand, they might question exactly what they are purchasing (skin firming lotion?). However, any dissonance in this case may be fairly easily resolved; consumers can relieve their cognitive dissonance by reasoning that there is nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, and at least they are supporting a company with “good” values. We will now turn to the “ugly” side of Dove’s campaign, which may evoke uncomfortable feelings that are not so easily resolved.

The Ugly

Despite much criticism towards Dove’s ad campaign regarding their true motives, ideology, and efficacy, the real ugly side of the campaign is in their relation to brands like Axe. Dove’s parent company is Unilever, which is also the parent company of Axe and Fair & Lovely. These brands promote messages that are in direct contradiction to the message that Dove is attempting to promote, which is positive body image. Fair & Lovely, a popular brand marketed primarily to dark-skinned women, promotes a desire for “lighter skin”. This goes against Dove’s mission to be more accepting of all women’s beauty, by providing products that aim to make all women more alike. An example of an ad by Fair & Lovely depicts a dark-skinned woman who cannot get her dream job because of her skin colour, but once she uses their product, she finally lands her dream job, achieves good body image, and somehow boosts her love life. Although these ads have been criticized by advocacy groups for being offensive and demeaning (e.g., the All India Democratic Women’s Association), Fair & Lovely products are still being sold in over 38 countries and ringing in millions (Gandhi, 2007).

Axe is another brand under Unilever espousing a message that is in direct contrast to Dove’s mission; their ad campaigns strongly promote the “thin ideal” and sexualization of women. An example is the “Bow Chicka Wah Wah” (BCWW) campaign, which was directed toward young men and viewed through TV commercials or online. These young men could participate online through the “In Your Area” page, which shows a map supposedly depicting areas across the country where women have been affected by the Axe scents and offers videos of the BCWW girls driving in different places; viewers are instructed to “Choose a hotspot on the map below and watch women across the country lose their inhibitions, their minds ... and often their clothes.” The overwhelming acceptance of the campaign’s message is exemplified in its monetary success, where its US business grew from nothing at its launch in 2002 to over $500 million in 2006 (Hamm, 2007).

Therefore, Unilever is also seen as being hypocritical, and their association with Dove could potentially lead consumers to gain negative feelings toward Dove’s ad campaign and experience cognitive dissonance. However, the dissonance in this case may not be so easily resolved as consumers have to try to rationalize buying products that support a company that promotes the very thing they believed they were ‘fighting against’ by purchasing Dove. This may lead to source derogation, as many consumers may reject the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the creators’ of the Campaign for Real Beauty. Consumers may certainly question Dove’s commitment to their social mission. Dr. Susan Linn, director and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), sums up this point nicely: “The Axe campaign makes clear that any concerns Unilever has about girls’ well-being take a backseat to their desire to exploit stereotypes for profit. With Axe, Unilever is creating the same toxic environment addressed by its Dove Campaign” (CCFC, 2007). This “ugly” side to the Dove campaign has been discussed at length elsewhere, and we will not linger on it here.


 Although the campaign itself has been the subject of much criticism, and the controversy surrounding Unilever remains, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is still going strong almost 10 years after its initial launch. One reason may be that despite the critiques, the campaign can still be seen as a step in the right direction. Furthermore, Dove continues to develop new initiatives that promote positive body image, with its latest being “Dove Real Beauty Sketches”. Through this initiative, Dove conducted a compelling social experiment that explored how women view their own beauty in contrast to what others see, the take home message being “you are more beautiful than you think”. The launch of the video immediately generated much discussion, both positive and negative, about the message the video was sending. If Dove’s goal was truly to initiate a global conversation concerning female body image, it has certainly done so. Whether the campaign is ultimately beneficial, harmful, or something in-between, we leave to the reader to decide. It is not our intention to take a stand one way or another on the value of the campaign. Rather, our purpose has been to examine the campaign from different angles and to encourage consumers to do the same – not just with Dove, but with any advertising campaign

Video Links



Dove Real Beauty Sketches:


Anschutz, D. J., Engels, R.C.M.E., Becker, E. S., & van Strien, T. (2009). The effects of TV commercials using less thin models on young women’s mood, body image, and actual food intake. Body Image, 6, 270–276.

Helm, B. (2008, May 7). Surprise! Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" ads actually kind of fake. Business Week. Retrieved from

Botta, R. A. (1999). Television images and adolescent girls’ body image disturbance.Journal of Communication, 49(2), 22-41.

Brown, J. D., Novick, N. J., Lord, K. A., & Richards, J. M. (1992). When Gulliver travels: Social context, psychological closeness, and self-appraisals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(5), 717.

Choma, B. L., Visser, B. A., Pozzebon, J. A., Bogaert, A. F., Busseri, M. A., & Sadava, S. W. (2010). Self-objectification, self-esteem, and gender: Testing a moderated mediation model. Sex Roles, 63, 645-656.

Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. (2007, October 9). CCFC to Unilever: Ax the axe campaign if you care about “real beauty”. [Press release]. Retrieved from“real-beauty”

Etcoff, N., Orbach, S., Scott, J., & D’Agostino, H. (2004). The real truth about beauty: A global report. Retrieved from

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.

Gandhi, D. (2007, June 3). Devadatta Gandhi: Fair and lovely? The Michigan Daily.Retrieved from

“Grand Prize Winner: Dove ‘Evolution’”. (2007, May 1). Creativity, “Special Report:  Creativity Awards”, pg. 46.

Grogan, S. (2010). Promoting positive body image in males and females: Cotemporary issues and future directions. Sex Roles, 63, 757-765.

Hamm, S. (2007, July 2). Children of the web. Business Week. Retrieved from

Harriger, J. A., Calogero, R. M., Witherington, D. C., & Smith, J. E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin ideal in preschool girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609-620.

Heiss, S. N. (2011). Locating the bodies of women and disability in definitions of beauty: An analysis of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Disability Studies Quarterly, 31. Retrieved from

Jones, A. M., & Buckingham, J. T. (2005). Self-esteem as a moderator of the effect of  social comparison on women’s body image. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(8), 1164-1187.

Katz, D. (1960). The functional approach to the study of attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 24, 163-204.

Marshall, C., Lengyel, C., & Utioh, A. (2012). Body dissatisfaction among middle-aged and older women. Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, 73, 241-247.

Neff, J. (2006). A real beauty: Dove’s viral makes big splash for no cash. Advertising Age, 77(44), 1-45.

Odell, A. (2010, June 28). Dove seeks women with ‘flawless skin’ and ‘no scars’ for its next real beauty campaign. New York Magazine. Retrieved from

Petrie, T. A., Greenleaf, C., & Martin, S. (2010). Biopsychosocial and physical correlates of middle school boys’ and girls’ body satisfaction. Sex Roles, 63, 631-644.

Smith, M. B., Bruner, J. S., & White, R. W. (1956). Opinions and personality. New York, NY: Wiley.

Springer, P. (2009). Ads to icons: How advertising succeeds in a multimedia age (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Kogan Publishing.

Stice, E., Shaw, H., Burton, E., & Wade, E. (2006). Dissonance and healthy weight eating disorder prevention programs: A randomized efficacy trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 24, 263–275.

Swami, V., & Smith, J. M. (2012). How not to feel good naked? The effects of television programs that use “real women” on female viewers’ body image and mood. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(2), 151-168.

Vivek, S. D., Beatty, S. E., & Morgan, R. M. (2012). Customer engagement: Exploring customer relationships beyond purchase. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 20, 127-145.

Young, A. F., Gabriel, S., & Sechrist, G. B. (2012). The Skinny on Celebrities Parasocial Relationships Moderate the Effects of Thin Media Figures on Women’s Body Image. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 659-666.

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

article author(s)