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The Dove Bottle Campaign: A Misstep or Still On Theme?

Maybe it’s just bad luck. After all, Dove’s #RealBeauty campaign turned 13 this summer. The award-winning effort to change the conversation around women’s bodies and our perceptions of beauty is notable for many acclaimed promotions revealing how women are persuaded that they are less than they should be, or must try to meet some impossible standard of beauty imposed on them by society… and specifically by advertisers.

So how did Dove, awarded many times over for smart, socially conscious marketing efforts themed to body image and gender empowerment, take such a misstep with their recent body shapes bottles?

Parent company Unilever announced a new special edition package for their popular Dove Body Wash. Limited edition, anthropomorphized bottles replicated common female body shapes (apple, pear, tall and slim, curvy, full hips, etc.).

There is no perfect shape, read the press releases, so we’re breaking the (bottle) mold.

“From curvaceous to slender, tall to petite, and whatever your skin colour, shoe size or hair type, beauty comes in a million different shapes and sizes. Our six exclusive bottle designs represent this diversity: just like women, we wanted to show that our iconic bottle can come in all shapes and sizes, too.”

The PR also asked “influencers” to spread the “diversity message” online, and buy the limited edition product. And yes, it sounds a lot like a ploy to sell product by making special packaging. But to say they also missed the psychological mark with most women is a severe understatement. 

The campaign quickly became a rude Twitter meme featuring “alternative” bottle designs and snarky comments. Nor was the press particularly kind. Jezebel headlined their response: “Dove’s New Diversity in Bottle Shapes Campaign Is Hilariously Stupid.”

“Finally,… I can squeeze soap on myself without feeling judged or not good enough,” quipped Aimée Lutkin. Do we really need to be reminded to worry about our body shapes when we’re naked, wet and just trying to get a decent start on the day? Don’t these bottles actually do the opposite of making us feel happy with how we look?

Perhaps very young girls might enjoy this campaign without irony creeping in, but sadly, most women from the age of puberty and older are not going to thank Dove for pushing them to self-identify as having anything but an idealized body contour.

An Alternative Perspective

Although, maybe that’s the point. Shouldn’t we embrace our bodies (and similarly shaped body wash bottles) proudly and without recriminations? Why shouldn’t we grab a bottle that mirrors our unique shape and say, “Hey! Cool!” Do we need to wake up and say, “I’m me and I’m good with that”? Why do we push back with snarky arguments that essentially prove Dove’s point—that we’ve been brainwashed into feeling awful that we don’t look like some airbrushed, pencil thin runway model? Is this a miss? Or is it kind of genius, and we just have to open our minds a bit to what they are actually saying?

Or, is this just a step beyond what reasonable women really want from a brand?

Dove has been on theme with its multiple #RealBeauty campaigns. Perhaps they need to return to real insights into human behavior, and continue to focus on raising women’s awareness of self-esteem and body image issues. Keep the social consciousness-raising separate from selling product.

The #RealProblem

Media studies professor Ian Bogost, writing for The Atlantic, nailed the disconnect.

“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.”

Bogost even assesses the ergonomics of the bottle designs that inadvertently support an “ideal” bottle shape. The hourglass-shaped bottle would likely be easiest to grasp and hold in actual use—when wet, in the shower. Dove’s error, says Bogost, is that they allowed customers to see past advertising’s smoke and mirrors to the reality—Dove is just another brand trying to get you to buy their product. They don’t care about their customers, just about their wallets. They tore a hole in the curtain and let people see that Dove is just like every other brand, trying to manipulate you to buy more. They claimed to want to celebrate women in all their individuality and diversity, and instead broke the illusion of their own sincerity.

Consumers have notoriously short memories for brands they like, so Dove will probably not suffer huge sales losses as a result of this short-lived campaign. But it does raise the question of whether the creatives at Ogilvy London (or Unilever’s marketing bureaucrats) who guided this particular effort to fruition will be around for the next campaign.

What do you think of the Dove bottles campaign?

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