Getting real about beauty

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"...So I'm not a size 2. I still think I'm beautiful, inside and out. The problem is, I think I'm beautiful but then I see another magazine or billboard with the skinny, gorgeous model on it and feel a little LESS beautiful. How do I change this?"

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Dove has been in the beauty business for nearly half a century, but we have never been the typical beauty brand. In the past, we've marketed our Beauty Bar as a simple, unpretentious way for a woman to make her skin more beautiful. Our messages have usually been direct and to the point, and for years we've used everyday women (as opposed to models) in our advertising. But our recent campaign takes that approach to a new level with an integrated marketing effort that turns standard beauty-marketing practices on their head.

Should others be changing their tactics? That's not for us to say, but we do think this is a precedent-setting campaign, and we hope it will inspire others to take new approaches to the way they represent women.

Why? When we polled women around the world earlier this year, more than two-thirds strongly agreed that "the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can't ever achieve." The women told us that they want to look and feel beautiful-but they want the definition of beauty changed. Most telling of all: Only 2% of women around the world chose the word "beautiful" to describe their looks.

The Campaign for Real Beauty, which we launched at the end of September (AA, Sept. 27), is a pro-beauty campaign in its most realistic sense, furthering the idea that real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages. It's a campaign designed to spark debate about (and hopefully widen) the current definition of beauty.

The effort began with a global ad campaign featuring images of women who are not professional models-decidedly stunning, yet clearly outside the stereotypical norms of beauty. Each asks viewers to judge the looks of the woman shown-"Gray? Gorgeous?" or "Wrinkled? Wonderful?"-then invites them to visit the Web site,, where they can cast their votes and join the dialogue about beauty in chat rooms.

In the first few weeks, it seems that the ads have touched a collective nerve. Women are visiting the site and voting by the thousands, and the debate has begun in earnest. The discussion boards are filling up with confessions ("I had a nose job eight years ago"), philosophical questions ("Is confidence the most beautiful thing of all?"), rants ("Females are dying to try to fit into these stereotypes...fighting depression and self-hate and ridicule, and for what?"), and lots of praise. Read a few pages and you come away with a genuine feeling of: at last, someone has been honest and realistic. Women already are finding inspiration-and a new kind of aspiration-in the campaign.

As expected, not every comment has been favorable. Some women have questioned why a woman can't be wrinkled and wonderful. I'd say that the voting mechanism is supplying the spark that is getting women to talk, to open up about a subject they've been aching to debate.

Of course, such a campaign has huge media pickup benefits. Beyond our Web site, the campaign has been covered by the media in the U.S., Canada and Latin America and has found its way onto numerous blogs. "Despite being someone who generally won't buy something just because of an ad," wrote one blog's visitor, "I'd be willing to commit to Dove if they continued with using real women in their ads."

too early

As you'd expect, we're pleased to hear comments like this one because we are committed to celebrating real beauty for the long term, and, of course, if customers come along for the ride it's a marketing success story. It's still too early to tell if the campaign has translated into increased sales of our products, but whatever the initial results, we are going to continue the conversation in a number of ways.

We're hosting workshops and other events across the country with women's groups and leading experts on issues of beauty and self-esteem. And we've created the Dove Self-Esteem Fund to support efforts that help raise the self-esteem of girls and young women and help them combat their hang-ups about the way they look-negative feelings that can prevent them from achieving their full potential in life. I don't think it's about telling girls that beauty doesn't matter, but about helping them understand where the images they see and the messages they get are coming from.

We know that working to change the traditional view of beauty is a monumental undertaking, and that it will take some time. We hope other leaders in the beauty industry will join us on this path. We hope that, five or 10 years from now, mainstream images of beauty will look and feel different. We hope girls will grow up with a more self-accepting perspective, less focused on trying to emulate an impossible model and more able to appreciate and enjoy who they already are.

We're hopeful, because already we're hearing stories like one posted recently on our site, in which a woman describes her experience taking 4-year-old twin girls to the movies:

"Before the movie started, there were scrolling advertisements on the big screen. There were the usual enhanced models and fabricated commercials, which went by mostly ignored by the girls, but every now and then one of the [Campaign for Real Beauty] shots would come up and these the girls would notice without fail. They would tell me that they `like that girl.' There is something basic in each of us that is drawn to the unique and natural beauty found in the human race."

About the author

Silvia Lagnado is global brand director for Unilever's Dove brand. She joined Unilever in 1997 in her native Brazil and was named ad Ad Age Woman to Watch in 2003.

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