In a May 12 profile in The New Yorker posted online, Pascal Dangin of New York's Box Studios is quoted as saying he extensively retouched photos used in the Campaign for Real Beauty, which, if true, could seriously undermine an effort that already has subjected Unilever to considerable consumer and activist backlash in recent months.
Models 'a challenge'
"I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual 'real women' in their undergarments," wrote Lauren Collins in the New Yorker article. "It turned out that it was a Dangin job. 'Do you know how much retouching was on that?' he asked. 'But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone's skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.'"
A spokeswoman for Unilever didn't immediately return calls and e-mail for comment. An attempt to reach Mr. Dangin was unsuccessful at press time. But a spokeswoman for the campaign's creator, Ogilvy & Mather, cast doubt on the account of the celebrity fashion photo retoucher, though she said the agency is still attempting to collect details of his work, if any, on the ads.
"We are unsure right now what he did," the Ogilvy spokeswoman said. "He works with Annie Leibovitz, the photographer. And we don't have any record of him actually working on any of the Dove campaign.
"There was no retouching of the women," she said. "If there was a hair that was up in the air, that might have been the kind of retouching that was done. But until I know what he actually worked on, I can't comment on it."
Leibovitz appears unscathed
While Mr. Dangin long has been known to work with Ms. Leibovitz, she wasn't the photographer on the earlier ads in the campaign that appear to have been referenced in the New Yorker profile.
Ms. Leibovitz was the photographer in a December 2005 shoot that ultimately became the basis for the Dove Pro-Age version of the campaign that broke in early 2007. That effort featured women in their 50s and 60s nude, not in their underwear.
If true, the news could be devastating to the nearly 4-year-old Dove campaign. The most famous execution to date -- and one that won both a Cyber and Film Grand Prix for Unilever at the International Advertising Festival last year -- has been the "Evolution" viral video, which shows an attractive but rumpled woman transformed through a variety of makeup, styling and retouching tricks into a billboard bombshell. The kicker: "No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted."
The viral has been viewed more than 15 million times online and seen by more than 300 million people globally in various channels of distribution, including news coverage, by the estimation of Ogilvy Chairman-CEO Shelly Lazarus.
Last year's follow-up to "Evolution," "Onslaught," took a harsher tone in criticizing the impact that distorted images in beauty advertising have in encouraging such problems as eating disorders.
Axe to grind
That in turn led to charges of hypocrisy from the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, because Unilever's Axe extensively uses buxom, attractive models in sexually suggestive ads.
A parody of the video, "Onslaught[er]," also became fodder for the environmental activist group Greenpeace to wage a successful effort in recent weeks to get Unilever to back a moratorium on clearing of Indonesian rain forests to grow palm oil. The group claimed Unilever, a major buyer of Indonesian palm oil, has been killing orangutans through its purchasing practices.
The Pro-Age effort in particular also provoked controversy, and Dove's sales growth appeared to slow, then stall last year during the Campaign For Real Beauty's third year, according to Information Resources Inc. data.