Body Image Messages from Unilever: Dove and Axe Promotional Controversy

Each year companies pour millions of dollars into advertisements for their beautification products. Many of these advertisements are targeted to women projecting a common theme, use this product and you will be attractive and men will want you. Women, in response, see the commercials and pour their money in attempt to gain the image of the skinny, clear skinned beauty. That image of the ideal body is in a dangerous spiral, “the average size of the idealized woman (as portrayed by models), has stabilized at 13-19% below healthy weight.[1]” Dove, in attempt to challenge the unreasonable standard women hold for themselves, created the “Real Women” and the “Real Beauty” campaigns. The campaign was a success for Dove until consumers realized Dove and Axe are both owned by Unilever, and Axe certainly is not sending a “Real Beauty” message.

Dove describes its campaign in the Real Beauty Mission statement as “a global effort launched in 2004 to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.”[2] To carry out this mission, Dove created a series of advertisements featuring “real” women, who “appear to be in their 20s and 30s, were multi-racial, and posed together smiling widely and frolicking, while wearing white cotton bras and underwear.”[3] Dove is promoting the idea that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. However, at the same time they are furthering the idea that one must feel beautiful and strive for beauty. They promote that people should desire the conventional feeling of beauty. Even if Dove states that it can be obtained in any form they are not taking into account people who do not wish to be considered beautiful. Also, these advertisements make little reference to the challenges facing women when trying to feel beautiful, such as messages from other media, social expectations, peer pressure and other forms of persistence that women must be skinny and tall and sexy.

Dove has an additional series of advertisements focusing on unveiling the pressures of the advertising world and the truth behind supermodel’s looks. They created a video advertisement entitled “Evolution” in which an average looking woman goes to a studio and is transformed into a supermodel through the use of makeup, hair products, lighting, and computer editing. Dove is displaying to the women who strive to be like the supermodels that the pictures they see are far from the truth. The end of the commercial states: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.[4]” They are exposing to the public the extreme amounts of editing and preparation that is necessary to create the look of perfect beauty that is promoted though media. The collection has pieces, “Onslaught” and “Under Pressure.” Both are used in Dove’s campaign to display the negative images young girls are exposed to every day. It depicts a young girl viewing all the beauty advertisements, sex promotion, plastic surgery, and other pressures that girls face each day through a rapid fire of images. “Onslaught” ends urging parents to “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does,[5]” and “Under Pressure” states in the middle that “more girls are under pressure than ever before,”[6] and ends by promoting the Dove’s self-esteem workshops.

The overall message of beauty in everyone and the elimination of low self-esteem that Dove is sending looks good. Dove’s success with this type of marketing changed the way that marketers think about advertising. Before the “Real Women” campaign, it was believed that promotions would not be successful without beautiful people and/or a “sex sells” mentality. However, the Dove campaign changed the outlook and was a relief to many appearance-anxious consumers.

At the same time, Dove’s campaign was under a lot of criticism. In Bob Garfield’s review of the advertisement with “Real Women” in cotton bras, he praises the attempt to move away from the “poreless, hipless, silken-haired, high-cheekboned, size-0, 20-year-old goddesses [who] perpetuate a false standard of beauty,” but at the same time he points out that these women who are displayed have every reason to be confident in their appearance because they are “Sizes 6 and 8 notwithstanding, they’re all still head-turners, with straight white teeth, no visible pores and not a cell of cellulite. Which is part of the problem. Hips or no hips, they represent a beauty standard still idealized and, for the overwhelming majority of consumers, still pretty damn unattainable.” [7] The standard for beauty is only slightly lowered, creating new problems for women who feel that they cannot even reach the lowered mark. Dove perpetuates a standard of acceptable beauty which is marketed at the average person who is not considered by media standards to be the stereotypical hot, sexy, and drop-dead gorgeous woman. So where does it leave those women who feel that they do not even compare to these “real” women? The message to the women is clear: they are not only below supermodel appearance, but they cannot even qualify for a lower standard of beauty.

This is far from the worst criticism that the “Real Beauty” campaign encountered. Eventually, the incriminating details of Dove’s background were uncovered. Dove is part of Unilever which also owns the brand Axe. Axe is a line of teenage boy’s toiletries such as shampoo, hair products and originally, body spray and deodorant. Axe’s target market is young men and has positioned the Axe line as products that will attract women to the man using the product. From the “Bom Chicka Wah Wah” commercials, one where a woman at the dentist smells his axe and starts saying “bom chicka wah wah and moving her legs and hands as if experiencing deep pleasure and then finally climaxes by spitting out the cotton in her mouth (the commercial ends “We’ve improved all the fragrances, now with added Bom Chicka Wah Wah,”[8]) to the “Axe Effect” commercials, one depicting women running in string bikinis competing to be the first to a man who is spraying Axe deodorant on himself, with the tagline “Spray more Get more,[9]” the Axe positioning is clear. The more Axe product you use, the more gorgeous, thin, supermodel women will want to have sex with you. The commercials are based off the idea that the painstakingly sexy woman, a body image unattainable by the great majority of real women, is ultimately what men want. This man is not displayed as loving the woman that he is with, nor is he displayed as loving the average looking woman, he is not even displayed as loving only one woman, but rather he is depicted as sexually desiring many women who are throwing themselves at him because the “Axe Effect.”

Recognizing this discrepancy in messages promoted by brands owned by the same larger company, Unilever, consumers were outraged at the blatant hypocrisy. Consumers felt that Unilever did not really care if their daughters have high self-esteem and self-confidence, the company was just trying to trick the consumer and make it looked like they cared in order to bring in more a profit. While, at the same time, Unilever was sending out an opposite message through another brand. One consumer created a parody of “Onslaught,” entitled “A Message from Unilever,” that replaced the images Dove had used of the negative messages with which the media pressures young girls with images from Axe’s promotional videos. The tagline at the end was changed from “Talk to your daughters before the beauty industry does,” to “Talk to your daughters before Unilever does.”[10]

The controversy made the news and Unilever was forced to make a statement about the discrepancy. Simon Clift, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, says that the Axe commercials should be taken with a pinch of salt: “It’s a spoof on the mating game. The joke is on the boy. It’s just a few bloggers in the US who don’t get it.”[11] Unilever continues to insist that the “Real Beauty” campaign is focused on tackling low self-esteem in girls and women and is not an anti-beauty campaign. And are arguing that they have the right to promote each brand specifically to its target market, teenage boys, in a way that will be most effective. “[Teenage boys] are obsessed with sex. Nothing that we or anybody else says will change that.”[12]

How one chooses to react to the contradictory messages is left up to the consumer. Unilever leaves the ball in our court giving us the ability to say that we do not want to support this type of message in the media and choose not to purchase these products. Sales are the driving force of all companies, if they begin to lose sales, they will begin to listen to the customer. Unfortunately, the most challenging issue becomes the large number of consumers who will buy Dove for their daughter because they support the “Real Beauty” campaign and then will also buy Axe for their son, because that is what all the teenage boys are wearing, and are completely unaware that the two brands are owned by the same company. The only solution is to be proactive and to educate the public about the hidden truths of the beauty industry and to continue to tell each other that we are beautiful, if that is what we want to be, and to support our friends and ourselves for who we are as women, as men, and as individuals beyond appearance.

7 thoughts on “Body Image Messages from Unilever: Dove and Axe Promotional Controversy

  1. Maggie Brookes says:

    These are the references.

    [1] Garner, D.M., Garfinkel, P.E., Schwartz, D., & Thompson, M. (1980). Cultural expectations of thinness in women.
    Psychological Reports, 47, 483-491.
    [2] “Campaign for a Real Beauty Mission”. Dove. 03/01/2010 CFRB/arti_CFRB.aspx[cp-
    [3] Johnston, Josee and Judith Taylor. “Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activists: Grassroots Activism and the Dove
    “Real Beauty” Campaign”. Feminist Frontiers 8th Ed. 2009: 127-139.
    [4] Dove. “Evolution.” 06 October 2006. Online video clip. Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Accessed 01 March
    [5] Dove. “Onslaught.” 06 October 2007. Online video clip. Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Accessed 01 March
    2010. .
    [6] Dove. “Under Pressure.” 29 December 2008. Online video clip. Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Accessed 01
    March 2010.
    [7] Garfield, Bob. “Garfield’s AdReview; Women may be `real’ but product is baloney.” Advertising Age 76.30 (July
    25, 2005): 53. Academic OneFile. Gale. Boston Univ, Mugar Memorial Library. 1 Mar. 2010
    [8] Axe. “Axe now with added Bom Chicka Wah Wah- Dentist.” 17 July 2007. The Axe Effect. Accessed 01 March
    [9] Axe. “The Axe Effect- women-Billions.” 03 October 2006. The Axe Effect. Accessed 01 March 2010.
    [10] “A Message from Unilever.” 19 October 2007. Youtube. Accessed 01 March 2010.
    [11] “Internet Guerrilla Attack Exposes Unilever “Hypocrisy” of Dove Girls and Dirty Dancers; UK Business.” The
    Times (London England). 03 December 2007: 42. Academic OneFile. Gale. Boston Univ, Mugar Memorial
    Library. 01 March 2010. <
    [12] “Internet Guerrilla Attack Exposes Unilever “Hypocrisy” of Dove Girls and Dirty Dancers; UK Business.” The
    Times (London England). 03 December 2007: 42. Academic OneFile. Gale. Boston Univ, Mugar Memorial Library. 01 March 2010.

    ❤ Maggie

  2. B says:

    Couldn’t agree more with this one. It is sad to see how many times women are constantly told how to look “pretty and perfect.” How is it that men aren’t ever faced with the same issues we as women are! I would love to see the reaction men would have if the tables were turned!

    • Maggie Brookes says:

      Thanks for the comment! I think that there are a variety of different preasures on men that society doesn’t give the consideration it should. We need to make sure that everyone is supported for being the beautiful.
      Thanks again for your thoughts!

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