Bankable Beauty

Only four percent of women consider themselves beautiful, according to a study commissioned by Dove.

Dove is banking on that.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, and the brand's owner, Unilever, re-energized the campaign in January with the release of Selfie, an ad video featuring a group of girls and their mothers discussing their looks under the guidance of a photography workshop on self-portraiture.

The Campaign for Real Beauty began with "regular sized" models posing in underwear in print and on billboards, and continued in 2006, with the release of ad videos Daughters, Evolution, and Onslaught. In 2007, Dove released Amy and the Pro-Age Campaign and in 2013, Sketches, which is one of the most viewed ad videos of all time with over 130 million total views.

It's not that I don't think the campaign is successful (it is), or that it doesn't bring conversations about beauty ideals into play (it does). But, Unilever is simply doing the same thing with Dove that all branding endeavors to do -- make a profit.

Looking at the campaign more closely, hypocrisy emerges on several points; a continued emphasis on physical beauty, a perpetuation of cultural white beauty, false claims about unaltered images, and a conflict of interest and lack of oversight between brands.

In direct opposition to Dove's "real beauty" message, Unilever's portfolio also includes the brands Slim Fast, Axe, Ben and Jerry's, and Fair and Lovely, a skin-lightening product sold in India.

Axe, in particular, also promotes misogynistic messages and sexualized depictions of women that upon discovery by consumers created backlash in the form of parody videos and negative commentary via social media. Unilever doesn't seem worried about the criticism. Fernando Machado, global brand development vice president for Dove Skin, says, "We hit the jackpot" when referring to the campaign.

So, what separates Dove from other corporate brands? Nothing. But that's not what viewers think. The Campaign for Real Beauty can be classified as cause advertising however, the purchase-to-donation relationship and call-to-action remain unclear.

Unilever openly boasts about its Dove Self-Esteem Project and Fund and donates over $2.76 million annually to its partners, Girls and Boys Clubs of America, Girls, Inc. and Girl Scouts of America. The website also claims that "Every Purchase Counts" but fails to outline exactly what amount from each purchase supports which programming.

Additionally, the site repeatedly states its goal of reaching 15 million girls by 2015 -- but with what message exactly? Feel more confident, more beautiful, and by the way, use Dove products to do so?

In contrast, other successful cause advertising campaigns result in more transparent and philanthropic results such as Proctor & Gamble's Olay partnership with the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery attracting over 9,000 people to participate in free skin-cancer screenings. Or General Mills' Yoplait Save Lids to Save Lives campaign and partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure that elicits consumers to mail in used yogurt lids with a goal of generating $50 million in 15 years.

And what about those profits? Unilever sells products in over 190 countries and generates $51 billion in sales annually (2012). In the six months following Dove's Real Beauty Campaign launch, sales increased by double digits the following year.

According to Unilever's facts and figures, their portfolio of 14 brands (of which Dove is one) made profits of over $1 billion annually.

Dove's marketing director, Mark Wakefield, has stated that during its brand tracking, consumers responded with recognition of the Dove blue bird logo 90 percent of the time -- just slightly behind Nike's swoosh. Unilever estimates that the media exposure generated by the campaign adds up to more than 30 times the paid-for media space. In 2013, Dove sales increased 1 percent in only four weeks after the release of Sketches, in comparison to a 3 percent growth usually seen for the entire year.

So while Unilever's campaign for Dove raises awareness around cultural ideas of beauty, women's perceptions of personal beauty, and keeps the subject of self-esteem current, it does so to keep its brand profitable. Period.

As long as viewers are aware of Unilever's motives, this works. But, lots of young girls are learning Dove's "real beauty" self-esteem messages around the ever-present brand mark/logo.

By gaining unprecedented access to young women through non-profit partners, Unilever creates a new and emerging market to increase its own profits.