Retouching Ruckus Leaves Dove Flailing

New Yorker Revelation Sparks Flap Over Whether Real Beauty Ads Are 'Real'

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- It was a few lines in a 6,000-word article, but it threw Unilever and its advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, into a tizzy of denials, explanations and spin control.

Whether or not the truth is finally known, the question remains whether the revelation that some of the Dove "Campaign for Real Beauty" ads may have been retouched will go down as a footnote in advertising history or rate among its biggest scandals, alongside Campbell's marbles in the soup.


Real beauties? According to Dangin, 'both the integrity of the photographs and the women's natural beauty were maintained.'

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As with many controversies, it began innocently enough, with a comment buried deep in a profile of Pascal Dangin, a prominent photo retoucher, in a May 12 New Yorker story penned by Lauren Collins.

"I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual 'real women' in their undergarments," Ms. Collins wrote. "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.'"

The line did not go unnoticed by BusinessWeek's blog, which seized on the seeming hypocrisy of retouching photos that purport to depict the average woman as beautiful. Such an act would also fly directly in the face of one the most lauded incarnations of Dove's four-year-old Campaign for Real Beauty, the "Evolution" viral video that won a Film and Cyber Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival last year. That film shows an attractive but rumpled woman transformed through a variety of makeup, styling and retouching tricks into a gorgeous billboard model. The kicker: "No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted."

Unilever, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz and Mr. Dangin fired back with denials -- four days after the article hit the streets -- saying it was the New Yorker story that was distorted and that Mr. Dangin's quote was taken out of context.

Unilever Senior Communications Marketing Manager Stacie Bright said the women's bodies in the 2005 "women in their undergarments" ads were not digitally altered. The 2007 Pro-Age photos by Ms. Leibovitz were, but "only to remove dust and do color correction," Mr. Dangin said in the Unilever statement. "Both the integrity of the photographs and the women's natural beauty were maintained."

In the May 8 statement issued through Unilever, Ms. Leibovitz said: "Pascal does all kinds of work -- but he is primarily a printer -- and only does retouching when asked to. The idea for Dove was very clear at the beginning. There was to be NO retouching, and there was not."

Ms. Bright, Mr. Dangin's company Box Studios and Ms. Leibovitz's agency, the Corporation for Art and Commerce, declined to elaborate on what the "color correction entailed," and declined to respond by deadline to phone calls or e-mails to a report from a person familiar with the matter that Mr. Dangin had admitted specifically to removing veins from the images of the women. Ms. Bright, in an e-mail, said only that Mr. Dangin had been employed by Ms. Leibovitz, not Unilever or Ogilvy.

And there was one other problem: The New Yorker is standing by its story -- that is, with one small caveat. The publication acknowledged in a statement that one of the 6,308 words in the piece was inaccurate -- the word "undergarments." So while the story implied that a Dove ad showing real women in "undergarments" was retouched by Mr. Dangin, in fact the women in the ads he said he retouched were nude. (Mr. Dangin worked only on the nude photos for Dove Pro-Age ads photographed by Ms. Leibovitz, not earlier campaign photos of women in their underwear shot by London celebrity fashion photographer Ian Rankin.)

Not fact-checked
The New Yorker story was not fact-checked with Unilever or Ogilvy prior to publication, a spokeswoman for the magazine confirmed.

So with only The New Yorker willing to drop its "undergarments," the truth remains murky behind the images of Dove's "real beauties" in their 50s, 60s, and 70s who posed nude for last year's Pro-Age ads.

Ms. Leibovitz, Unilever and Ogilvy declined to make the original proofs or digital renderings from the December 2005 photo shoot behind the campaign available for inspection or publication.

Which leads us to wonder, does it really matter? While several commentators on found the story overblown, noting that retouching is a widespread industry practice, Unilever in the past took pains to emphasize in media in press releases and media reports that its photos weren't retouched.

Models wonder
The Pro-Age models, too, found the issue important enough to ask about, and had been assured their photos weren't retouched, said one of them, Wendy Katzman, of San Francisco, in an e-mail.

"We asked and were explicitly told that none of our (Dove Pro-Age) photos were retouched," she said May 8. "I just heard about the New Yorker article last night and was pretty upset about it!" She didn't recall who had told her the photos wouldn't be retouched, but said it wasn't Ms. Leibovitz.

] It's hard to know how much lasting damage the controversy will do to Dove, said Jim Nail, chief marketing officer of TNS's online buzz-tracking service Cymfony. "A lot of it is still [advertising] people talking about this. If it stays in that group, then, no, it really doesn't have any impact on the overall campaign. Will it cross over and become a huge exposé? ... It's still a bit of a crapshoot," he said.
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