Friday, May 13, 2011

Dove's hypocritical campaign for its “Go Sleeveless” deodorant creates insecurites

This post originally appeared on my old Joe Dellosa on Advertising blog.

► Dove is trying to invent a new, fake insecurity for women (unattractive underarms?) in order to shill its new Go Sleeveless Deodorant, completely blowing whatever credibility it had as a trustworthy brand that cares about the self-esteem of young women.

Last month, Dove (the beauty brand owned by Unilever, not the chocolate brand owned by Mars) made a stir with its Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant. The stir was not a positive one.

The deodorant—whose name is officially stylized as “Dove go sleeveless Deodorant,” with lowercase letters to emphasize casualness of going sleeveless or something—purports to beautify women’s underarms. In addition to its duties reducing underarm odor, Dove promises that Go Sleeveless will provide women with softer, smoother, and more attractive underarms in just five days.

According to a Dove press release dated April 4, Go Sleeveless was inspired by a 2010 study conducted by Unilever with market research firms Omnibus and TNS that supposedly found that 93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive. Dove to the rescue, right?

Well, no. Many in the media quickly (and appropriately) called shenanigans on Dove’s new deodorant and its associated marketing campaign: Slate called it yet another instance in a long line of marketing efforts designed to foment fake insecurities in women and profit off selling them a cure. American Public Media’s Marketplace did a couple of person-on-the-street interviews with women who expressed no pre-existing concerns about their underarms.

And Stephen Colbert, who’s one of the media’s most astute advertising critics, had the definitive takedown of Dove during the April 13 episode of The Colbert Report. Colbert said “women have now learned that their armpits are hideous” with Unilever’s help and called the Dove’s new deodorant a “breakthrough shame-o-vation.”



Their points are all well-taken, and this should be pretty embarrassing for Dove. After all, even if we give Dove the benefit of the doubt and say that there are probably some women who do feel concerned about the appearance of their underarms, it's audacious for Dove to present its product as a solution to some sort of universal problem affecting virtually every American woman.

What hasn’t been mentioned quite as often is why this should be very embarrassing for Dove: with this advertising campaign—a campaign predicated on shamelessly fabricating a fictitious anxiety and foisting it upon women—Dove has completely blown its brand identity as the beauty brand that cares about the self-esteem and emotional well-being of young women. Oops.

 Cam-pain for real beauty

The last time a Dove campaign got any real attention was its much-lauded and award-winning Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. In the campaign, Dove criticized our culture’s perception of beauty as unrealistic and damaging to young girls with smartprovocative ads showing the artificiality of the beauty industry.

Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


In other ads, Dove hired models more representative of average women, specifically eschewing thinner, perfectly airbrushed models. (Dove later got criticized when it turned out those models' photos were retouched, just like any other model's photos.)


But even without word of the entirely-unsurprising Photoshop job, it’s easy to see why Dove launching a Campaign for Real Beauty is at least a little hypocritical. Dove, after all, is still a beauty brand, and ultimately, its goal is to sell girls and women products that will make them prettier. And that just doesn’t jibe with a “feel good about the body you have” message—because, in essence, Dove is encouraging girls to feel good enough about themselves that they don’t need to buy all those products from Dove’s competitors, but not good enough that they can forego Dove products.

Don’t get me wrong—as an advertising cynic who takes an ardently feminist approach to advertising to and about women, I really like the general spirit of the campaign. But it’s entirely insincere for a beauty company to criticize the beauty industry while pretending it’s not a part of the problem. Would we give any credence to McDonald’s running ads on childhood obesity if they didn’t acknowledge the existence of Happy Meals?

And that’s the problem with the Campaign for Real Beauty—it’s co-opting a message of positive body image for the purpose of selling products that rely on girls and women feeling that their bodies are imperfect. To put it in starker terms, it’s commodifying girls’ self-esteem by turning it into just another marketing opportunity, and that’s particularly messed up. It’s one thing, after all, to be upfront and tell girls they’re ugly and that they should buy your product; it’s quite another to pretend to be empowering and supportive while passive-aggressively reminding girls that this great new Dove cream can really help them look great.

A couple of other criticisms of Dove’s campaign: There’s the implicit message that some women are more “real” than others, and that attractive or thin women don’t count as real. I’m pretty sure pitting groups of women against each other isn’t the most productive way to go about the whole empowerment thing.

Most damningly, there’s the stubborn little fact that Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns the Axe brand, which has no problem celebrating supposedly “fake” beauty in its ads. This was most ably demonstrated in Rye Clifton’s remarkable mash-up between a Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ad and various Axe ads.

Can't see the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


Lucky for Dove, those criticisms mostly didn’t stick, and the Campaign for Real Beauty is generally regarded as a major success for Dove. Its brand image as an empowering, pro-girl image is one Dove both values and actively cultivates—it has a “Dove Movement for Self-Esteem” website and brags about its Dove Self-Esteem Fund, which supports organizations like the Girl Scouts and Girls Inc.

In fact, as recently as April 4, Dove proudly tweeted that “[e]ach time you buy @Dove, you help us and our partners provide inspiring self-esteem programs to girls”—self-esteem that couldn’t possibly be belied by a tweet calling Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant a “must have accessory” if girls are considering going sleeveless.

 Poll dancing

So this brings us back to Dove’s new deodorant. Here’s the marketing challenge facing Dove: How do you create a fake insecurity, push it onto women, and sell them a product that will fix that insecurity, all without looking like complete hypocrites after all that Campaign for Real Beauty stuff?

The answer lies in that press release, which repeatedly notes the results of Dove’s supposed survey: “Perceptions of unattractive underarms have women shunning sleeveless attire,” the headline screams. According to the study, “almost all women feel their underarms are unattractive”—the exact figure being “93 percent,” as mentioned later in the press release.

Remember, press releases are nothing more than marketing departments’ attempts to get the attention of news outlets to do a story on their products, framed the way the marketing department would like. It may be too much to hope that a press release is simply reprinted verbatim (although, sadly, that does happen a lot), but a slyly-written release can nudge a reporter into unwittingly writing a puff piece for a product.

So why does Dove want to emphasize the results of its market research so badly? (You don't see Mountain Dew putting out press releases stating that “90 percent of men think that Baja Blast is the most extreme flavor” when they roll out a new flavor.) Because that’s the way it can get out of looking like a bunch of self-esteem-crushing hypocrites. By pretending that Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant is merely addressing a well-established problem rather than inventing one, Dove gets to shrug off criticism by saying, “Hey, we’re just responding to women’s needs.”

And it kind of worked. In a March 30 Wall Street Journal article, the “93 percent” statistic is repeated uncritically:

Dove Ultimate Go Sleeveless, which hits U.S. stores this week, claims its formula of specialized moisturizers will give women better-looking underarms in five days. It was inspired by Unilever PLC research that found 93% of women consider their armpits unattractive.

To its credit, the Wall Street Journal does cite the company as the source of the finding, and three paragraphs of the story are used to explain that being seen as fabricating a need is a risky strategy. But the reporting does, without question, take the company’s word that the research inspired the product, rather than raise the possibility that this purported “research” could just be another component of the marketing campaign.

On the other hand, WNBC, the NBC affiliate in New York City, just went ahead and handed Dove free ad time. During WNBC’s LX New York (which is admittedly more an entertainment and lifestyle show but is still hosted by what appear to be journalists), the host conducted an interview with Dove spokeswoman and Gossip Girl star Jessica Szohr about the deodorant. And by “interview,” I mean “hackish shill-session.”

Can't see the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


Consider this example of sparkling journalism from the clip above:

WNBC Host: A lot of women, apparently 93 percent of them who responded—

Szohr: Feel uncomfortable.

WNBC Host: Yeah!

Szohr: Yeah.

WNBC Host: Which I was kind of surprised by.

Szohr: Yeah. And this product basically, if you—when you use it, within five days, you get softer, smoother underarms. So that way, when you use halter tops, or tank tops, or dresses that show that area, you can feel comfortable and not self-conscious.

WNBC Host: So if people join in this campaign, they get to go shopping with you, maybe?

The press release offered by Dove doesn’t offer too much in terms of details about the survey itself; this is the entirety of the information about the survey:

Through a Unilever, Omnibus and TNS Research International the go sleeveless: Uncovering Underarms. An online, anonymous survey was taken by 534 women, ages 18-64 to gather insights on understanding the level of anxiety women feel about the appearance of their underarms.

And that’s not helpful. It’s journalistically unsound to cite poll results in news stories without seeing the complete questionnaire and results. Trusting a company to interpret results in an unbiased matter is foolish, and trusting a company’s poll as legitimate without at least giving it a once-over is just silly. This is doubly true when a poll itself is used as a cornerstone in an actual marketing campaign.

Plus, it’s unclear as to whether or not this poll is statistically valid. Dove wrote its press release suggesting some of its results can be generalized to the population (“93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive,” Dove writes, and not 93 percent of women surveyed), but other statistics use the qualification (“Over half … of the women in the study”; “1 in 3 of the women studied”). The online nature of the survey raises more questions about the poll’s validity, too—the validity of online polls is often questioned due to issues with random sampling and self-selection bias.

So, I emailed Unilever and a media contact at Edelman (Unilever’s PR firm) and asked for the full questionnaire, with the exact wording and order of the questions, as well as the full results. I also asked very specific questions about the poll’s methodology, including if a random sample was used, how participants were recruited for the poll, and what the poll’s margin of error was.

After some friendly emails back and forth, Annette Evans of Edelman wound up emailing me this statement:

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the testing methodology of the go sleeveless: Uncovering Underarms study. This study was conducted by an independent third party market research supplier, to gather insights and provide statistically sound evidence.  This online, anonymous survey was taken by 534 women aged 18-64. The survey is statistically sound and adhered to industry-recognized guidelines and the highest quality standards.

Which is basically what the press release said. I emailed back, reiterating my desire for the full questionnaire and results and repeating my questions about methodology; alas, I didn’t hear back.

To be clear, I don’t blame Evans for sending an incredibly (and, more likely than not, deliberately) unhelpful statement. She’s just doing what her client likely instructed her to do. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were the first person to ask for the full questionnaire and results—that would explain a lack of even a boilerplate, “sorry, we’re not releasing that” refusal.

But here’s the thing. If Dove is willing to release a part of its market research—the part that helps its marketing effort—without letting reporters see the whole picture, it makes it look like Dove is actively hiding something. And if Dove is unwilling to answer very basic questions about the poll’s methodology, it makes the whole marketing campaign—as well as Dove’s brand image—look completely bogus.

(For a detailed explanation on why I think it's so important to get the full questionnaire and full results from Dove, please click here.)

 Why this matters

With its campaign for Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant, Dove appears to be trying to both manufacture and profit from the insecurities of its female customers. Dove is in the beauty industry, so that isn’t surprising.

It shouldn’t even be surprising that Dove is doing this after its whole Campaign for Real Beauty nonsense. A company that harshly criticizes the beauty industry while pretending that, somehow, it’s exempt from the criticism is hardly a paragon of consistency or self-awareness—and no number of donations to the Girl Scouts can change that.

What this should make abundantly clear is that “brand identity” or “brand personality” are meaningless concepts—or, at least, they should be. I don’t really get this tendency to anthropomorphize companies, but we should knock it off: by and large, companies exist to make money, and any personality they show is merely a means to that end. Nike isn’t an athletic company any more than Hallmark is a sentimental company. They’re companies. They make money. They assume whatever identity they feel best helps them make money.

And yes, this includes Dove. I don’t doubt that there are people who work for the Dove brand that care about the self-esteem and body images of young women; I would presume that many of its employees are women who have daughters. And I don’t doubt that many of its employees are earnest in their efforts to use the marketing resources of Dove to do a little good.

But we shouldn’t confuse those employees with the brand or the company. Dove makes its decisions based on what can help them sell enough body wash, deodorants, and creams to keep Unilever profitable. The Campaign for Real Beauty wouldn’t exist if Dove didn’t think it'd help Unilever make money, just as Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant wouldn’t exist if Dove didn’t think it’d be profitable.

On one hand, I’m tempted to just shrug and chalk it up to the amorality of big business. But on the other hand, I’m pretty annoyed that Dove’s presumption that the cause of helping girls develop a healthy body image is a purchasable commodity, to be bought when it suits the brand’s marketing goals and dropped when it doesn’t.

The people at Dove who actually care about young women should be embarrassed by this campaign, and the people who actually believe that Dove cares about young women should be disabused of that notion.

And at the very least, nobody should be stressing out about their underarms that much. I mean, even before this product came out, Jessica Szohr hardly seems to be losing sleep over hers…


…so neither should you.

You can email me at jdellosa@gmail.com, or tweet me @JoeDellosa.

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