Dove's viral video attack on beauty advertising has produced a surprisingly strong and enduring blowback against Unilever from activists, newspaper op-ed writers, bloggers and videographers who see it as hypocritical coming from the same company that markets Axe.
To be sure, none of the critics is coming to the defense of beauty-industry advertising, linked in the "Onslaught" video to everything from low self-esteem to plastic surgery to bulimia. Rather, they're attacking Unilever for simultaneously trotting out its own endless stream of buxom, scantily clad, sex-crazed women in ads supporting Axe.
Sleight of hand
In an op-ed titled "A Company's Ugly Contradiction" in The Boston Globe earlier this month, contributor Michelle Gillett said, "Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads [for Axe] exhort boys to make 'nice girls naughty.' ... Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems."
WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather handles Dove. Bartle Bogle Hegarty, part owned by Publicis Groupe, handles Axe, and Edelman handles public relations for both brands.
"Onslaught," from Ogilvy, Toronto, has amassed about 1 million views on YouTube since its Oct. 1 debut, still well under the 12 million generated by its oft-honored predecessor, "Evolution," whose viewership also got a boost from the new video.
But even with lower viewership, "Onslaught" already has produced two rather trenchant critiques. The latest, with 40,000 views and numerous blog links, mashes the Dove video with Axe ads and morphs the original tagline "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does" to " ... before Unilever does."
Thanks to the power of digital targeting, display ads for Dove Pro-Age body lotion surrounded one blog post linked to that video last week.
Insider speaks out
As it turns out, the Dove-Axe mashup was an inside-the-industry job created by Rye Clifton, a senior strategic planner at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, Richmond, Va. Mr. Clifton was quick to point out in a phone interview that the video was his own idea and done on his own time. Martin doesn't represent any Unilever rivals, having parted ways with Burt's Bees before the video was posted last month.
Mr. Clifton said he was unaware Dove and Axe were owned by the same company until it was brought up by another planner during a conference. "My immediate thought was that would make a perfect video on YouTube," Mr. Clifton said, adding it's had more of an impact than he imagined, with more than 100 blog postings. While he was struck by the hypocrisy, he did concede a bit of professional rivalry also entered his mind, given the numerous industry honors Dove and Axe have received.
"Onslaught" also accomplished what four years of racy Axe ads hadn't -- getting the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to demand Unilever stop running Axe ads. While the group already was aware of Axe and of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, the specifics of the "Onslaught" push set it off.
"The whole idea of 'Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does' certainly motivated us to do a campaign around this," said a spokesman for the group. "Unilever is the beauty industry. To point fingers at other brands and at the same time be taking advantage of the same horrific marketing other companies are doing is incredibly hypocritical."
'Whack a Blonde'
By last week, the "Onslaught" backlash had metastasized to blog bashing of another Unilever brand, Sunsilk. Blogger Lucinda Marshall, in an entry headlined, "Unilever ditches self-esteem as a marketing concept, embraces misogyny," criticized a "Whack a Blonde" game on a new website for Sunsilk, colorshowdown.com (to be fair, the site has a "Whack a Brunette" game for disgruntled blondes as well).
"Onslaught" also helped spawn a story in The Sacramento Bee probing controversies surrounding Axe, though the article, amid a cast of Axe-bashers, pointed to a women's-studies student who finds the ads amusing.
That's exactly the point Unilever would like to make: Axe has just been poking fun all along, even if Dove is dead serious.
"The Axe campaign is a spoof of 'mating game' and men's desire to get noticed by women and not meant to be taken literally," the company said in a statement. "Unilever is a large, global company with many brands in its portfolio. Each brand's efforts are tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience."
That, however, is the sort of distinction social media's transparency renders difficult, said Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer for brand-monitoring firm Cymfony. "Only one in 100 people may know that Unilever owns both brands," he said. "But that one person is likely to be participating in social media."
And when that one person tells the other 99, it can change the nature of the conversation fast, he said, noting a stream of comments about "Onslaught" recently on Shape.com that rapidly shifted from praise to condemnation of Unilever when a poster noted that the company also owns Axe.
"Most people have been really positive about 'Onslaught,'" said Stacie Bright, senior communications marketing manager for Unilever. The controversy, she said, "has just been part of the conversation."