Dove's New 'Onslaught' Ad a Triumph

Exquisitely Combines Social Responsibility and Brand Marketing

By Published on .

Well, for starters, it's not just a commercial. It is a great film.

"Onslaught," the sequel to Dove's Cannes Grand Prix-winning viral "Evolution," should get an Oscar. In one brief minute, it indicts the culture's obsession with Barbie-doll exteriors, raises the consciousness of girls and women and exposes the inner ugliness of the so-called beauty industry. And you can't take your eyes off of it for a second.

Is there an Academy Award category for really, really short subject?

The video opens with a close-up of a sweet-faced, redheaded little girl. She could grow up to be Nicole Kidman or Peppermint Patty. The rest of the spot documents which way she'll be pressured to go. It's a fusillade of images shooting right in your face, of ultra-skinny, ultra-curvaceous, ultra-sexualized women. That onslaught is followed by a second one: (deftly faked) ad images promising women they can look "younger, taller, lighter, firmer, tighter, thinner, softer." Then scenes of women shrinking and expanding via fad diets, some graphic cosmetic surgery shots and a glimpse of bulimic purging.

Finally, the message: "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."

Standing ovation here.

Apart from its raw impact, the video from Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, also produces the exquisitely rare dovetailing (as it were) of social responsibility and brand marketing. While nominally calling attention to the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, which aims to inculcate girls with a sense of confidence and worth, the whole campaign also neatly positions Dove as the product line of choice for natural -- vs. aftermarket -- beauty.

Such seamless convergences are not easy to come by, even among the most sincere marketers. One can't help but recall the Worst Commercial Ever Made, back in the '80s by the progressive proprietors of ForEyes Optical, who were troubled by the scourge of homelessness. Their ad showed gritty docu-footage of society's human refuse beneath the superimposed message: "If you've grown used to this, you need glasses." Next came the product shot and a second proposition: "Two pair for $79."

That campaign didn't last very long. Dove's deserves to. A worthy cause, a brilliant strategy, a flawless video. It all amounts to something very close to perfection. So, yes, absolutely, four stars.

Damn, if it just weren't for the nagging hypocrisy of it all.

Viewed close up, the "Campaign for Real Beauty" is precisely the unassailable defense of human values it purports to be. But to pull back is to reveal. Dove is a brand from Unilever, which isn't so enlightened when it comes to Axe/Lynx -- whose ads portray women as slinky sex toys -- and Slim-Fast, which encourages exactly the kind of yo-yo dieting so vividly dramatized in "Onslaught."

As for Ogilvy, well -- in a bit of horrifying/delicious irony -- it is actually the U.S. agency for the Barbie doll.


We harbor no doubts about the sincerity of all concerned. In fact, we suppose many of those involved relish the opportunity not only, for once in their careers, to promulgate a positive, genuinely humane message but to also expiate their past sins. In that sense, at least for now, the exercise is not at all cynical. On the contrary, it is the path to redemption.

The hard part will be staying on the path. What happens when Dove sales begin to flag and market share begins to slide? That will be the test of true righteousness. Does the "Campaign for Real Beauty" then get disposed of, like last year's fashions, or dubiously "enhanced," like a pair of fake breasts?

We'd like to believe that the values embraced here are invulnerable to the onslaught of market forces. But we don't.

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