Documentation:Open Case Studies/Business/Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign: Body Positive Promotion or Genderwashing?

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Case Abstract

This case discusses the rapid growth of the now controversial “positive body image” promotional strategy, that some have suggested is “genderwashing,” whereby firms may engage with progressive gender and race issues in one brand’s promotional campaign while creating perceived contrary campaigns with that of other brands or campaigns that don’t seem to fit the body positive narrative. Specifically, this case examines the Dove Real Beauty campaign in conjunction with that of Axe Body Spray and Fair Lovely (all brands owned by Unilever) from a conceptual perspective. A conceptual model of a genderwashing is offered and potential managerial implications are articulated whereby it is posited that these campaigns can lead to consumer cynicism and a desire to cease purchases.


In 2004, Dove launched its “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Silvia Lagnado [1], the global brand director for Dove stated at the time, “The Campaign for Real Beauty 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” (p. 20). Over a decade later, Dove continues to promote its brand under this concept and campaign. Throughout the campaign’s history, Dove has used various promotions, including multimedia advertisements, short films, billboard, television and magazine ads, and the creation of an interactive and educational “Real Beauty” website. Lisa Klauser, Dove’s Vice President of marketing shared services stated, “Because we’re out to influence pop culture, you see our brand taking a very distinctive point of view…” (as cited in Neff, 2006 [2]). Dove soon realized that taking this stance in their IMC strategy generated a buzz on social media, in high school classrooms, in feminist literature and on college campuses. The resulting publicity might have given Dove a response much greater than any paid placement alone could achieve. The 60 second Dove: Evolution spot which ran during the 2006 Super Bowl “generated about 90 million impressions, but pre-and post-game publicity produced 400 million, even though the ad only aired one time on regular TV” [2]. In 2013, this same strategy again proved successful with the 60 second spot Real Beauty Sketches. Receiving nearly 135 million views after going viral across the Internet, Advertising Age reported that the spot was the most-viewed video ad campaign of 2013 [3]. As a result of taking a “progressive” and “positive body image” point of view, the “Campaign for Real Beauty” has created massive exposure for the Unilever-owned brand.

While this campaign and others like it have been wildly popular as marketing has traditionally used “idealized” beauty as something to aspire to [4], there has been some negative fallout and criticism related to it. Much of the criticism stems from stereotypically gendered campaigns in Unilever’s portfolio, as well as perceived problematic attributes of the Dove ads themselves. More recently, in 2017, Dove ran into a wealth of controversy with their Facebook campaign that appeared to depict a woman of color “taking off her top” after using Dove to reveal a Caucasian woman underneath.

See the Dove advertisement image.

Many consumers, as they posted on social media, considered this to be racially insensitive and in line with another Dove ad that had similar claims of insensitivity. This one appeared to imply that darker skin was undesirable and that Caucasian skin was exemplary of beauty.

See the Dove body wash advertisement image.

Some critics have labeled practices like these genderwashing. This is where firms may engage with progressive gender issues in one brand’s promotional campaign while concurrently creating contrary campaigns with that of other brands and/or engaging in contrary business practices. Critics believe this may be an attempt on the part of the firm to leverage negative publicity about ethically troubling campaigns, with a more “feel-good,” “progressive” campaign nested in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) imperative.

Dove: Real Beauty

Dove’s first stage of the campaign began in 2004 with the aim of “broadening the definition of beauty by challenging stereotypical conventions.” [5]. They did this by presenting images of women who, on the surface, appeared outside of these conventions on billboards and in print ads with statements that posed questions like “wrinkled? or wonderful?,” “fat? or fit?,” “grey? or gorgeous?,” and “flawed? or flawless?” [5]. To accompany the launch of the campaign, Dove released “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report,” after commissioning and supporting research that aimed “to further the global understanding of women, beauty, and well-being—and the relationship between them” [6]. As Johnston and Taylor [7] explain “this format provided a space to debate feminized beauty ideals and was a win-win situation for Dove: it could promote its products as beauty solutions and at the same time express concern with narrow beauty ideals” (p. 952). In 2005, Dove expanded the campaign and launched their “Real Women in the Spotlight” advertisements, which “set out to debunk the stereotypes that only thin is beautiful” [5]. In advertisements, Dove had individuals stand in simple white bras and underwear below the phrase “real women with real bodies.” Using women that appeared to vary in race, height, weight, breast size and hair color, Dove presented a diverse group of individuals who were not stereotypical models in attempts of challenging society’s general understanding of beauty.

Dove continued its objective of making “real” women feel more beautiful in 2006 with the creation of the Little Girls short film. This was soon followed by the short film Evolution. That film, which went viral, “was created to expose the unrealistic expectations of beauty perpetuated in media all around us” [5]. In 2007, the spot, Onslaught was released, and later that year, “Dove teamed up with renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz to create an empowering celebration of beautiful women over 50” introducing their “pro-age” portion of the campaign [5].

In 2013, the spot, Real Beauty Sketches became wildly popular. Dove states that Sketches “reveals a universal truth about women's perception of their own beauty,” concluding that women are too self-critical and they are more beautiful than they know [5]. Dove’s latest installment of the campaign includes the short films Selfie, Patches, and Mirrors and the social media campaign “#beautyis.”

Dove adds another dimension to the “Campaign for Real Beauty” through the Dove Self-Esteem Fund. By utilizing what Johnson and Taylor [7] term “grassroots partnering,” the fund has partnered with the Global Advisory Board, the Boys and Girls Club, Girls Inc., and the American Girl Scouts “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,” according to Dove Global brand director Lagnado [1]. Through these partnerships, Dove reports that the fund has been successful in reaching over 11 million girls with self-esteem education and hopes to reach 15 million by 2015 [5]. By linking a social mission to their beauty brand, Johnston and Taylor [7] explain how by promoting itself as a progressive force for women, Dove has been able to associate itself with feminist ideals, engage in grassroots partnering and implement self-esteem programs, and receive widespread praise in the popular media for its “progressive actions.” (p. 943).

Campaign Controversies

While Dove states the goal of the Real Beauty Campaign is to challenge the normative standards of Western beauty, the campaign’s message is not as transparent as presented. Dove set out to represent “real women;” however, the individuals featured in the campaign are not necessarily representative of the “average” female population. Most efforts of the campaign predominantly feature women that are, by conventional norms, facially “attractive” and caucasian. The models used “range in dress sizes from 6 to 12. While larger than the average fashion model (size 4), they are still smaller than the average American woman, who is a size 14 (p. 942)[7].” While describing Real Beauty’s Sketches video in her blog post on Tumblr, critic Jazz Price noted, "When it comes to the diversity of the main participants: all four are Caucasian, three are blonde with blue eyes, all are thin, and all are young (the oldest appears to be 40). The majority of the non-featured participants are thin, young white women as well. …out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds" (as cited in Griner, 2013 [8]). In Sketches, only one Asian woman, three black women and one black man are shown. When featured, two of the black women are briefly seen and then only when they are negatively describing themselves. And, as we previously mentioned, the controversy in 2017 with the Facebook campaign led to increased problems. These types of criticisms have led some to believe that the Dove campaign is not entirely genuine or inclusive.

Overall, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign has elicited reactions ranging from incredibly positive to extremely critical. Many applaud Dove for effectively “reaching a mainstream audience, [which is] often difficult when dealing with something that might be considered a political issue” (p. 46)[9]. The campaign has been praised for taking such a bold stance as a beauty brand. Dove has been admired for opting to a make change and using its wide degree of influence in positive ways. However, Dove has come under major criticism for its engagement in contrary-type practices out of the public eye. Very few consumers know that the firm that owns Dove, Unilever, also owns (or owned during the campaign) a wide range of other companies, most notably Axe Body Spray and Slim-Fast. The ads and positioning for two these brands specifically are not viewed as empowering; some might say they’re offensive and gendered. Slim-Fast is a “quick weight loss” product that routinely makes it appear that “slimmer is better” and therefore constructs an image for American women that slimmer is more attractive. Fair and Lovely is a product sold to Asian women to make their skin lighter, more closely resembling western Caucasian women (and thereby “more attractive”). Additionally, Unilever also owns Suave, another beauty brand. As Dove released their Evolution film, Suave began their Pretty Mommy campaign, which “plays on moms’ insecurities about letting themselves go.” [10] Donna Charlton-Perrin, the Suave creative director, stated “Dove is talking about something that’s very internal, about your self-esteem… Suave is just asking you to make a very surface change,” which is promoting a message contradictory to Dove’s [10]. An editorial published by Advertising Age argues, "perhaps [Unilever] shouldn’t be crowing about virtues in the communications for one brand if it’s preaching vices for another” (2007, 16). “Unilever is the beauty industry. To point fingers at other brands and at the same time be taking advantage of the same horrific marketing other companies are doing is incredibly hypocritical” [11]. Mahdawi [12] argues that companies like Unilever have been using women’s rights as a marketing ploy and “feminism has become a great way to sell stuff… these manipulative videos are produced to make us choose Dove products over other products—and that’s it.” Pelley [13] states, “It’s also offensive that this campaign subtly blames women for their insecurities and ignores its own role in helping create them. The message seems to be, “We don’t need to make better products or change our advertising; it’s you who needs to change your thinking.” As such, beauty is still being perpetuated as the value in which women evaluate their self-worth.

Positive Body Image in Promotional Campaigns and Genderwashing

Some believe the Dove Real Beauty Campaign exemplifies genderwashing. Believed to have been first coined by Burk [14] relating to Walmart’s handling of gender issues, genderwashing is a term “to convey the same meaning ‘greenwashing’ evokes when its used to describe companies that try to look environmentally responsible – while doing little or nothing to actually change themselves or improve the environment.” As Laufer [15] explains, greenwashing is a strategy firms use to manage their reputations with the public to hide deviant behavior, obscure problems or allegations, reattribute blame and/or appear as a leader. Laufer [15] believes that these corporations “engage in complex strategies and counter strategies that serve to shift the focus and attention away from the firm, create confusion, undermine credibility, criticize viable alternatives, and deceptively posture firm objectives, commitments and accomplishments” (p. 255)[15]. Further, the problematic use of sustainability as a promotional theme to make consumers feel guilty as opposed to firm engagement with sustainable practice has been mentioned by many in the literature [16][17].

Commodity Feminism and Consumer Feminism

Genderwashing may be predicated on two specific concepts. The first, commodity feminism, turns feminism into a commodity. Goldman, Heath and Smith [18] explain:

"We’ve chosen the pun, commodity feminism, because commodity relations turn the relations of acting subjects into relations between objects. Turning feminism into a commodity value fetishizes feminism. When appropriated by advertisers and editors, feminism has been cooked to distill out a residue—an object: a look, a style. Women’s discourses are related and respoken by these named objects (e.g., Hanes hose, Nike shoes, Esprit jeans). Such sign-objects are thus made to stand for (or made equivalent to) feminist goals of independence and professional success. Personality can be expressed, and relationships achieved, through personal consumer choices (p. 336)."

They further state, “to signify feminism, advertisers assemble signs which connote independence, participation in the work force, individual freedom, and self-control. Commodity feminism presents feminism as a style—a semiotic abstraction—a set of visual sign values that say who you are” (p. 337). Yet by converting feminism into a commercial advertising strategy, commodity feminism “depoliticizes the feminist message” (p. 87) [19].

Similarly, Johnston and Taylor [7] introduce the term feminist consumerism as

“a corporate strategy that employs feminist themes of empowerment to market products to women and that shares consumerism’s focus on individual consumption as a primary source of identity, affirmation, and social change. This reformulation enables women to wear an identity associated with self-respect, independence, personal strength, and collective identity and community without doing any of the hard consciousness-raising work usually required to produce collective (rather than simply individual) transformation. (p. 956) “

This approach has the possibility of unsettling gender norms only if employed in a consumer-oriented society. Similarly, based on analysis of Nike’s campaigns towards women, the concept “celebrity feminism” termed by Cole and Hribar [20] explains how, through discourses of free will, Nike defined itself as “pro-women by positioning itself through the themes of being natural, authenticity, and self-growth. By defining itself in relation to these issues, Nike establishes itself as a socially responsibility corporation, as a symbol of collective progress and possibility” (p. 366).

Feminist consumerism does not typically center around more radical goals of feminism “such as decentering the role of beauty in women’s lives, processing negative emotions, or challenging men’s relationship with feminine beauty,” but instead on the main capitalist goal of purchase and profit (p. 961)[7]. “As such, feminist consumerism tends to obscure and minimize both structural and institutionalized gender inequalities that are difficult to resolve and that might cause negative emotional associations with brands,” which in turn would negatively affect sales and brand loyalty (p. 961)[7]. Similarly, Nike’s narrative of “just do it” “turns on a notion of individual choice that limits what and who we recognize. In this case, the conditions of everyday life are not so much challenged as they are reinforced.” (p. 366) [20] By not radically positioning their brand, a company ends up reinforcing the status quo instead of challenging it. In relation to the Dove campaign, Johnston and Taylor [7] conclude that the brand encourages women to engage in dissent by closely associating with corporate marketing campaigns and consumption behavior. They note that while accessible and positive on the surface, Dove’s “critique of beauty ideology is diluted by its contradictory imperative to promote self-acceptance and at the same time increase sales by promoting women’s consumption of products that encourage conformity to feminine beauty ideology (p.962).” They go on to mention that the campaign equates self-acceptance and beauty through the use of Dove products. Thus, Dove, while promoting a message is really promoting itself and encouraging consumption of “pro-beauty” products. Many argue that issues related to negative body image were brought about by corporate marketing campaigns – engaging women in a pursuit of perfection or alteration, facilitated by specifically marketed products.

Cause Related Marketing / Corporate Social Responsibility

Closely related, conceptually, to feminist consumerism and commodity feminism are cause-related marketing and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Brønn and Vrioni [21] state cause-related marketing as, “the process of formulating and implementing marketing activities that are characterized by contributing a specific amount to a designated non-profit effort that, in turn, causes customers to engage in revenue-providing exchanges… … to tie a company and its products to a cause. (p. 214)” They mention further that it is a mechanism to build equity and gain competitive advantage.

Barkay[22] explains “the new approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR) stipulates that the pursuit and adoption of socially responsible practices are not simply the morally right thing to do but also a profitable business strategy (p. 279).” Likewise, Drumwright [23] posits that “there is not a company in the U.S. or the world that would spend money on advertising in a way that is not economic. The only reason, absolutely the only reason, that money is spent on advertising is to move people toward economic payoffs for the product and the company (p. 74).”

Brønn and Vrioni [21] contend that a corporation’s “association with a non-profit organization can generate positive media coverage, build a reputation of compassion and caring for a company, enhance its integrity, enhance employees’ motivation and productivity and consumers’ preferences (p. 212).” Cause-related marketing as a marketing strategy has proven to be successful. “One-third of Americans say that after price and quality, a company’s responsible business practices are the most important factor in deciding whether or not to buy a brand, and if price and quality are equal, they are more likely to switch to a brand which has a cause-related marketing benefit” (p. 212) [21] .

There may be clear positives to both the firm and society when embracing CSR and cause-related marketing, however, they may be overshadowed by the commodity feminism and feminist consumerism. When taken in tandem, all four concepts may underlie the core facets of the perception of genderwashing. On the surface a positive body image campaign may invoke the positive aspects of CSR and cause-related marketing, however, those positives may quickly become overshadowed when consumers are exposed to ads, by the same firm, who appears to have contrary messaging and strategic intent. Thus, concurrent promotional campaigns may reduce the use of the gender variable to a commodity.

As Johnston and Taylor [7] posit, feminist consumerism employs themes of empowerment to women but focuses on consumption as the primary source of affirmation and social change. This, too, is potentially problematic as they contend that this strategy may lead to avoidance of gender issues on a deeper, collective, consciousness-raising level. The ultimate goal of feminist consumerism is purchase and profit.

Given the fact that Unilever concurrently engages in promotional campaigns for Axe Body Spray, Fair & Lovely and Slim Fast (at the time of this study) as it does Dove, the idea that the “body positive” strategy may indeed be a type of “Defense Barrier” whereby criticism leveled against the firm is deflected, at least somewhat, by the Dove campaign. This idea of “defense” is based on the wealth of negative comments and perceptions about Axe, Fair & Lovely and Slim Fast that can be found in the course of examining discourse online. These publicly articulated negative thoughts and feelings go as far back as 2007. It could be that the Dove gender-oriented campaign is a strategy that not only looks to increase sales from a CSR/commodity feminism/consumer feminism perspective, but also assists in helping alter or compensate for negative perceptions about the firm for marketing products in tandem with controversial ads that have been criticized, for years, by many in the feminist community. Skin lightening cream and diet aids have been the target of many feminists for decades. Initiating a positive body image campaign allows the firm to deflect negative criticisms and attributions, at least somewhat. Brand equity lost in the mind of the consumer from one controversial campaign may be regained from another.

Unilever’s Situation

The Dove campaign came strongly out of the gate, challenging a wealth of gender-related norms. The campaign became an overnight success on social media and benefitted from a wealth of evangelizers. The campaign has been extolled in the popular and industry press. Upon further review, however, Unilever has found itself in a precarious situation, as, over time, literature has demonstrated clear issues below the surface of the campaign that relate to patriarchal expectations shaped by conventional beauty ideals [24] and the “exploitation” of participant labor as part of the social media strategy [25]. Further, it may be that the heart of the campaign’s strategy to stir deep brand loyalty is sullied, in the minds of some consumers, by its upholding of more traditionally-minded beauty myths and expectations in its products marketed overseas. This becomes even more troublesome for the parent firm when a campaign predicated on brand performance in social media [26] becomes potentially truncated and disrupted when the online community comes to the revelation that they’ve been deceived or that a truth has been obfuscated (that Axe Body Spray and Fair & Lovely are also under the Unilever umbrella) or that subsequent parts of a campaign are very problematic.

The case of Dove demonstrates some key similarities between the strategy some have labeled as “genderwashing” and the phenomena know as “greenwashing.” Delmas and Burbano [27] define greenwashing as a common scenario where firms mislead consumers about sustainability benefits inherent in an offered product or service; where there is intersection between poor environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance. Additionally the practice may entail exaggerated information about firm environmental performance and/or concern. Even as some note that the process of greenwashing may have decreased since the 1990s [28], Delmas and Burbano [27] found that greenwashing has deeply negative effects on consumer confidence. Going further, they also posit that the practice can harm investor confidence in the socially-responsible capital market and can open the firm to lawsuits and challenges from concerned organizations and government entities who believe they are being misled.

Consumers may find a similar intersection between poor or questionable gender-related performance and positive communication about gender-related performance when it comes to Dove. When taken with the fact that consumers, overwhelmed by CSR claims in today’s economy, have a difficult time identifying authentically responsible firms [29] firms accused of genderwashing may find themselves with particularly negative consequences that both erode consumer trust and add to more CSR-oriented clutter in the marketplace. More clutter and ambiguity in the CSR realm may lead to an inevitable turn away from CSR strategies as firms learn that the costs may not outweigh the benefits.

Ultimately, the discourse about the Dove campaign demonstrates that there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding the issue of gender and imagery in the world of marketing communications. Weight and female body image continue to become an area of concern and the slim female body continues to be the opposite of the modern-day example of idealized beauty [30]. Social marketing campaigns and cause-related marketing related to body image continue to be overly simplistic [31]and, potentially, short-sighted based on the importance many consumers, especially those in Gen Y [32], place on the message. The Dove campaign, while very successful, may eventually lead to the parent brand’s demand as more consumers become informed of the connection between brands such as Axe and Dove – once largely hidden from the public – now more widely know.

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. While there are certainly many who are critical of the Dove campaign, clearly the campaign has gained a great deal of traction and has been going strong many years in the media. Does the criticism negate the positives the campaign brings in terms of gender issues in today's consumer society?
  2. Could Dove improve the campaign and still have the same level of impact and ability to break through media clutter? If yes, how so? If no, explain why not.
  3. Is it possible for a for-profit firm to create a positive campaign that helps society but also assists the firm in gaining increased revenues or are these two goals really mutually exclusive in today's environment?
  4. Can mass media created by a for profit firm be a revolutionary tool?

Contributing Authors

  • Jeffrey S. Podoshen, Department of Business, Organizations and Society, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA; Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, College of Business, Camden, New Jersey
  • Sarah Wheaton, Department of Business, Organizations and Society, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA

When re-using this resource, please attribute as follows: Created and developed by Jeffrey S. Podoshen and Sarah Wheaton of Franklin and Marshall College. Support provided by Franklin and Marshall College Hackman Scholar's Program, the Open and Affordable Textbooks Project at Rutgers University, and Teagle Foundation.

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Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document according to the terms in Creative Commons License, Attribution 4.0 International . The full text of this license may be found here: CC by 4.0


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