Suspicious of “Authenticity”, women challenge Dove ads – Again!

by cv harquail on May 12, 2008

The latest controversy over Dove’s "Real Women" ads shows just how suspicious we are of organizations that claim they have become authentic and honest, after showing themselves to be neither.

You may already be aware of the two previous controversies related to Unilever Corporation’s Dove "Real Women" ad campaign . [Jump to previous post for an introduction to these previous controversies.] Now, here comes another controversy— Were any of the photographs used in Dove’s "Real Women, Real Beauty" campaigns modified by a famous photo retouching-innovator, Pascal Dangin?

In an Advertising Age article published May 9 , journalist Jack Neff summaries the chronology of the controversy:

  • a New Yorker article on Pascal Dangin’s innovative methods for altering photographs,
  • subsequent claims that Dangin was misquoted,
  • attempts by Ogilvy & Mather (Dove’s ad agency) and
  • Annie Leibovitz to clarify which sets of photographs were or weren’t retouched,
  • and so on.

As the pixel dust settles, it would seem that the photographs in question were not significantly retouched, and that in fact Dove’s photographs of ‘real women’ presented the women as they more or less truly appeared. And thus, the story has turned to a question of how Dove/Unilever could have but didn’t use the controversy as a marketing opportunity.

Really, Dove/Unilever could have used this controversy as an Authenticity Opportunity.

Jonah Bloom, Executive Editor of Advertising Age has written a follow-up article on how Dove/Unilever has missed a key opportunity to interact with consumers . Thinking primarily about the emerging model of marketing that focuses on what the consumer thinks and says, Bloom reminds Dove that it needs to be ready to interact with their customers at all times and give up the idea of controlling the message. Says Bloom,

"The reaction (by Dove/Unilver, Ogilvy ) also smacked of a brand, or at least an agency, still wanting to control the message rather than genuinely welcoming a fresh twist in the debate….. But the key for two-way marketers is going to be to welcome the cut and thrust of debate, whatever it might bring."

Here’s the authenticity angle:

Marketers only have to ‘control the message’ if the message/ the image they want to present is different from who the organization really is. An organization only needs to control its image when the organization is inauthentic .

Before an organization can truly welcome a debate or even a simple conversation with consumers, the organization needs at least to be striving towards authenticity. It needs to be striving to make its identity drive its image , and forget trying create an image of (what the organization thinks) would make it popular with consumers.


  • To engage in an honest conversation with consumers, an organization must speak directly from its identity. The organization’s words cannot be controlled, filtered, adjusted or photoshopped in an effort to make the organization look better or different from who it really is.
  • Honest conversations require immediacy, or at least timeliness. Adjusting the organization’s words to fit a particular image adds a step and takes a bit of time. People distrust a time lag— time lags make it look like the organization doesn’t know what to say, or worse, isn’t paying attention to consumers. (BTW, as of May 12th there is no information about this new controversy anywhere on the Dove Real Women website.)
  • Honest conversations also require humility. Adjusting the organization’s words to fit a particular image usually includes erasing blemishes, brushing away blame, and avoiding responsibility.

Organizations can present idealized, as-yet-unrealized images of themselves, but these images only hold up as long as they are supported by visible effort of the part of the organization to move itself towards this image. Once an organization’s actions are discovered to be discordant with the organization’s image, customers and stakeholders perceive the organization to be inauthentic, and they stop trusting both the organization’s word and any of its efforts to do better.

Organizations can make mistakes and still be perceived as authentic, if they respond effectively.

The organization needs to acknowledge its mistake, show that it understands consumers’ concerns, and immediately set out to correct the mistake. (See my Glamour Magazine post on this issue.)

So far, Dove/Unilever is addressing some of the facts of the situation, by explaining that only some ads were retouched, and these only in a minimal way. While this response may address the facts of the situation, it does nothing to address the truth of the situation.

  • The truth of the situation is that Dove / Unilever doesn’t get it — it doesn’t really understand its consumers. If Dove really understood women and women’s so-called ‘beauty issues’, they would reach out and engage with consumers and other stakeholders about how the photographs of real women were manipulated so that all the photos were attractive. Dove would discuss how only photogenic ‘real women’ models were chosen, Dove would have explained how the models were posed and lit to show them at their best, Dove would have shown us the original photos, and they would explain why they chose to adjust the photos before printing them.
  • If Dove really understood its consumers, Dove would admit that even an organization that wants to accept real women’s beauty as it occurs in real life still struggles with finding a balance between reality and a what the market defines as "attractiveness" . And, by admitting that the organization itself is struggling with the very issue that real women address every day, Dove might have won over their consumers’ hearts.

As it is, Dove seems either clueless (best interpretation) or caught in the act of faking it. Whatever it it, isn’t real beauty at the organizational level.

At this moment, I’m not sure whether there is a single authenticity-related ‘take away’ from Dove’s experience:

  • Does being authentic mean rejecting perfection?
  • Does being authentic require humility?
  • Does being authentic demand a certain level- but not too much- transparency?

What’s your takeaway? Let us know by clicking on the ‘comments’ line (below the photo) and adding your opinion……

corporate shills  dove ad

Graffitied subway ad courtesy of jossip.com.

{ 2 comments }

Jenny B May 21, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Great post, CV.
This makes me think about an issue of Oprah magazine, early in its history, in which Oprah showed readers everything she went through to look as she did on the cover each month. Photos documented her transformation from no makeup, just out of bed hair, etc., to glamorous cover girl. I can’t recall if she also showed or discussed the retouching process. In any case, it reflected Oprah’s stance for authenticity, I think.

CV Harquail May 22, 2008 at 10:52 am

Hey Jenny- I DO remember that article in “O”– and I’ve thought about it many times since, especially on the days that my “O” magazine arrives in the mail. I know that Oprah in real life (and even on TV) looks very different from the CoverGirl Oprah …. but I wonder why, even though she *told* readers her cover image is highly manipulated/ not “real”, she still only has severely-retouched photos on the cover? Since sho does this as a matter of course, do we still think of Oprah as pro-authenticity? (and remember, I do love my Oprah, so to criticize her is hard for me)._

Or, is it ‘really’ because women will only buy the magazine on the newsstand if Oprah looks (artificially) younger and thinner? Or is it this line, from the post, which seems more and more true to me? ” Even an organization that wants to accept real women’s beauty as it occurs in real life still struggles with finding a balance between reality and a what the market defines as “attractiveness”. “

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