Ogilvy, Dove Miss Chance to Turn Bad Press Into 'Debate'

If They Wanted to Be Word-of-Mouth Marketers They Should Have Been Listening

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The latest Dove controversy epitomizes the ad industry's struggle to reinvent itself as a participant in an ongoing conversation rather than an old guy with a megaphone barking orders to people who no longer follow them.

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Ogilvy's work for Unilever's Dove brand has been a poster child for this conversion. Here was a campaign that used traditional one-way stuff such as TV spots, banners, billboards and magazine ads but did it in a way that encouraged and facilitated debate everywhere from Oprah's studio to the smallest blog. Further, it embraced and employed consumers' parodies or reinterpretations of the ads and, in doing so, seemed to achieve the zenith of marketing: accepting that what the consumer thinks and says about your brand is more important than what you say and think about your brand.

Personally, I thought the campaign's entire premise disingenuous. Here was a company that for years told women what they ought to look like suddenly telling them it was OK not to look like that after all. But any place where I said that, I became another part of the marketing effort, likely sparking other people to come to Dove's defense by pointing out that I should be applauding their efforts, not dredging up past missteps.

So last week, when it was revealed in a New Yorker magazine profile of an airbrush artist, Pascal Dangin, that he retouched some of the Dove ads, you might think Unilever and Ogilvy would spot an opportunity for another conversation.

Here was Dove's statement as I imagined it: "We're sure our consumers are smart enough to know that photos that are going to be blown up to the size of a billboard may have to be retouched. For the sake of the women themselves, there are certain things -- a pimple, a stray hair -- that might be airbrushed. The idea here was to use models of various shapes and ages, not to unduly expose them. We think we've made a point. But, we've also tried to raise women's awareness of the issue of retouching and ask whether, when taken to extremes, it can create an unrealistic notion of beauty. If this New Yorker piece reopens the debate, that's a happy coincidence for us, and something we definitely want to hear consumers' views on it."

There was no such statement. Instead, three days after The New Yorker came out and 24 hours after being contacted by BusinessWeek and Ad Age, what comments had been offered by the brand's representatives were still distinctly defensive, either focusing on the fact that not all the pics were retouched or noting that Ogilvy didn't know about the retouching.

Dove's reaction was simply too slow for today's digital world. For brands to work as word-of-mouth marketers, they have to be listening at all times, even when the chatter seems to have died down. The reaction also smacked of a brand, or at least an agency, still wanting to control the message rather than genuinely welcoming a fresh twist in the debate.

As Jack Neff's story "For Unilever, P&G, No Good Deed Is Going Unpunished" in last week's Ad Age illustrated, taking a position on social issues is essential today and yet a recipe for getting criticized. But the key for two-way marketers is going to be to welcome the cut and thrust of debate, whatever it might bring.

I haven't heard of a smarter way of doing that than P&G's recent decision to let consumers make the decisions on two media controversies: the company's support for TV shows that contained perceived profanity and shows displaying gay kissing. Perhaps that's what Unilever should've done in this case too -- put it to a vote: Do you want your billboards complete with every last pubic hair or do you agree that there's such a thing as too real?
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