How Dove Ruined Its Body Image

A new ad in the brand’s long-running campaign spoils its body-positive track record.


Dove has worked hard to connect its brand image to social ideals. Thanks to a decade of “Real Beauty” campaigns, the personal-care products company has successfully associated itself with the goal of positive body image. In one campaign, billboard ads depict ordinary women instead of professional models. Another shows the process of Photoshopping a pretty but imperfect woman into the impossible ideal typically shown in marketing images.

The company’s latest effort in the series is called Real Beauty Bottles. “Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” a commercial declares. “There is no one perfect shape.” As evidence, the ad rolls out six different shapes of Dove-branded plastic body-wash bottles. Each roughly correlates with a (woman’s) body type. There’s an hourglass bottle. A tall, thin bottle with smaller curves. A pear-shaped bottle. An even squatter pear-shaped bottle. “Real beauty breaks molds,” the ad quips, before revealing that the six bottles are available as a limited-edition run.

The ad hopes to connect body-type dispassion with the Dove brand, scoring another victory for the company’s purported mission. But in practice, something else happens. The Real Beauty Bottles seem offensive, but it’s hard to put a finger on why. I’ll help.

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Dove makes personal-care products like soap, deodorant, lotion, and shampoo. Big whoop, right? Everyone needs ordinary consumer goods like these, and nobody wants to think too much about them. The best body wash or antiperspirant is the one that’s cheapest but still works.

That’s a problem for consumer packaged-goods companies like Dove—or Bounty, or Coca-Cola, or Tide. If all products are sufficiently equivalent, how can companies distinguish them such that the consumer would choose one over another?

That’s where product differentiation comes in—separating products by how they work rather than how they are promoted. A soap made from natural ingredients, or one that opts against animal testing, or one with antimicrobial properties. Advertising that touts the functional benefits of products is called demonstrative, because it provides direct information about a product’s tangible features. Think of old ads on television that showed an announcer describing a product’s benefits, or magazine ads with a lot of descriptive copy. These ads, which declined over the course of the 20th century, appeal to consumers’ sense of reason. The product is better because of what it can do.

But it’s often hard to differentiate products, especially commodities. And as anyone who watched Mad Men learned, advertising is about happiness. “Whatever you’re doing is okay,” Don Draper summarized in that show’s pilot. “You are okay.” Reason isn’t always the best way to make consumers feel okay.

Instead, advertising started connecting products and services with ideals. This is called associative advertising. These ads provide indirect information and communicate intangibles about a product. Associative ads don’t appeal to the features of the products themselves. Instead, they correlate the product, or the product’s brand, with an activity or a lifestyle. Coca-Cola became associated with Americanism. The Volkswagen Beetle with fun and free-spiritedness. And Dove with positive body image. Until now.

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Most advertisements are produced as images. They might be printed on glossy paper, they might be broadcast on-air, and they might flank online articles like this one. But there’s a problem with those kinds of ads. There are so many of them now, it’s easy for consumers to look past them. They become background noise.

One way to make ads visible again is to get creative with implementation. Sometimes that means a particularly clever, traditional campaign. The Absolut print ads of the 1990s, which used abstract concepts—Absolut Magnet, which appears to attract the printed words from the neighboring page—and commissioned artists to render the brand’s distinctive bottle, offer one example. So do Super Bowl ads, which benefit from a large audience that tunes in partly to see marketers’ best efforts.

But even those ads are too ordinary to notice over time. So marketers also try to get creative with form. Here’s one example. A public-transit staircase sits next to an escalator. The treads of the escalator are painted yellow, and the DHL brand mark is imprinted on the landing. Next to it, the word “OtherServices” is applied to the floor in blue and orange—which just happen to be the colors of the FedEx logo. The implication is clear: DHL is faster than FedEx.

Here’s another. The wall of a bus shelter is encased in 3M Security Glass, which is also the product to be advertised. The wall appears to contain be hundreds of bundles of currency. The ad dares its subject to test the promise the product makes.

In both of these cases, the ads work because they give consumers an experience of the product advertised. In the DHL ad, the comparison of the escalator and the stairs lets the consumer feel the speed differential. In the 3M Security Glass ad, the consumer almost can’t help but accept the invitation to try to test the glass's durability. These advertisements mix reason and emotion, creating delight in coming to understand the product.

And then there’s the Dove Real Beauty Bottle. Like 3M and DHL, Dove aims to mix reason and emotion. The setup is right—a product that embodies its message. But the problem is that the result is incoherent and contradictory. The bottles negate rather than support the advertiser’s associative claims.

Consider some scenarios. A pear-shaped woman has run out of body wash. She visits the local drug store, where she finds a display of Dove Real Beauty Bottles. To her chagrin, now she must choose between pear- and hourglass-shaped soap. She must also present this proxy for a body—the one she has? the one she wishes she did?—to a cashier to handle and perhaps to judge. What otherwise would have been a body-image-free trip to the store becomes a trip that highlights body-image.

Now imagine actually using the bottles. In the shower, they become slippery. The pear shapes are unwieldy, all their weight pressed to the sides. That will make them hard to hold in a single-hand. The tall, thin bottles are gangly. They fall over easily when bumped on the shelf.

Ah, but which bottle is least cumbersome? The hourglass-shaped bottles, of course. The ones with big “bosoms” and “hips,” providing firm grip around the “waist” when wet. And just like that, against the campaign’s hopes, Dove engineered bottles that, through functional differences, inadvertently imply there is a best body after all.

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Capitalism doesn’t care about you. But usually it takes some work to uncover that truth. Dove is owned by the conglomerate Unilever, which also owns Axe. Axe makes the same kind of products Dove does, but markets them to young men, often in overtly sexist ways. That’s a hypocrisy that reveals advertising’s true scruples, which involve extracting incremental value from your wallet as efficiently as possible. But at least hiding the hypocrisy in the common ownership of a parent company also obscures it from the consumer’s view.

The Dove Real Beauty Bottle’s duplicity, by contrast, is self-evident. All bodies are unique, it says, by offering a choice of only six types of bottle-bodies. All bodies are equally valid, it says, by offering bottles shaped like bodies, some of which are less usable than others. It’s advertising’s job to lie, but it’s only when consumers can see the lie that the dissimulation becomes palpable enough to offend.

Thankfully, there is hope. For anyone with a body in need of cleaning, a return to demonstrative advertising offers salve. Just look for a bottle of body wash that is shaped to sit upright on the shower shelf, shaped to fit the human hand, and that hasn’t tried to sell itself as an affirmation of the shape of your human form. The body wash that is truly open-minded about the body is the one that doesn’t try to emulate it in the first place. It’s just soap. Use it to wash off the feeling of ever having seen this Dove ad.