When tush comes to Dove.

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 1 2005 10:15 AM

When Tush Comes to Dove

Real women. Real curves. Really smart ad campaign.

Dove ad.
Click image to expand.

The spot: In print ads and on billboards, various "real women"—stripped down to their plain white undies—gleefully show us their "real curves."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

This campaign for Dove's new line of firming products (lotions and creams and such) is everywhere you look. The ads made their debut in last month's fashion magazines and they now grace every outdoor surface in sight. Buses, bus stops, billboards, buildings—I can't walk three blocks in my D.C. neighborhood without encountering another of these Brobdingnagian babes.

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There's no doubt that the ads are striking. This is, of course, entirely a function of the casting choices. If the wardrobe, lighting, and graphic design remained the same but these ads featured gorgeous, size-0 models, no one would give this campaign a moment's thought.

But these are not models. These women have paunches. And asses. And are not pouting. Dove says these ladies range from size 4 to size 12 (it's not tough to tell which is which), and were discovered all over the country. One was working at the Gap, another was a student, a third was a barista.

When I first saw one of these smiley, husky gals on the side of a building, my brain hiccupped. Something seemed out of place. Here I was, staring at a "big-boned" woman in her underwear, but this wasn't an Adam Sandler movie, and I wasn't supposed to laugh at her. It felt almost revolutionary.

Indeed, Dove has portrayed its "Campaign for Real Beauty" as a progressive, humanitarian mission. The Dove press release plays up stark statistics on body image and the media: "Models weigh an average of 23 percent less than the average woman. Twenty years ago, models weighed an average of 8 percent less." There's a Dove Web site that features "beauty discussion boards," where women from around the world can whine about their thighs. (Frankly, I was terrified to read those boards, but I finally took a peek. Indicative post: "You go, Dove!") The site also has a link where you can donate money to Dove's "self-esteem fund" for young girls.

Dove ad.
Click image to expand.

If the women in these ads lacked self-esteem, they wouldn't be up on a billboard in their skivvies. Hey, good for them. I even have a favorite Dove chick: Stacy (the student). She's the one who poses with her backside to the camera, showing off her ample bottom. I see Stacy every day—she's on the bus stop shelter next to my house. "Check out this fiiiiiiiine bedonkadonk," she seems to say to me, grinning slyly over her shoulder. I think I may have a crush on her. But I've said too much already.

The interesting thing here is the risky bet Dove is making. Beauty-product marketing has almost always been aspirational: I wish I could look like her … perhaps if I buy this lip gloss, I will! But Dove takes a wildly different approach: That chick in the ad sort of looks like me, and yet she seems really happy and confident … perhaps if I buy this Dove Firming Cream, I'll stop hating myself!

In part, Dove's strategy is not unlike the Body Shop's old eco- and animal-friendly stance: Buy our products because you like them, but also because you're making a righteous statement. To buy Dove is to cast a vote for more "real curves" in advertising.

But there's a dirty little secret here. Because, in the end, you simply can't sell a beauty product without somehow playing on women's insecurities. If women thought they looked perfect—just the way they are—why would they buy anything?

Dove ad.
Click image to expand.

These Dove ads say it's cool to be round and hefty … so long as your skin is taut and firm and perfect. (And, in case you're curious, Dove says these photos were not retouched at all.) But what's that, you say? You love your real curves, but you've got a little cellulite? Girl, run out and buy our hocus-pocus cream right now! Those cottage cheese thighs are vile! Dear God, cover them up!

Short-Term Grade: A.These ads are real attention getters—everyone's talking about them. On that level, they're a smashing success. Also, Dove now owns the "friend of the everywoman" angle. Smart move on their part to spot this open niche and grab it. Finally, if I can get sappy for a moment, it is sort of nice to see the unperfect have their day in the sun.

Overall Grade: D.Sadly, this is not a winning play for the long haul. If Dove keeps running ads like this, women will get bored with the feel-good, politically correct message. Eventually (though perhaps only subconsciously), they'll come to think of Dove as the brand for fat girls. Talk about "real beauty" all you want—once you're the brand for fat girls, you're toast.

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