Katie LeBesco

(WOMENSENEWS)–The ads on huge billboards in streets and subways around the world have been hard to miss: curvy, ethnically diverse women in their underwear, flaunting bodies that fit anything from size 6 to 12.

By offering such a striking contrast to the standard, pencil-thin model, the zaftig figures have helped Dove, the maker of personal-hygiene products, capture what every multi-million-dollar marketing campaign wants: lots of attention.

“We have received an overwhelmingly positive feedback,” said Philippe Harousseau, marketing director for Dove, based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and owned by Unilever, the consumer-goods maker with headquarters in London and Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Harousseau said the intent of the “Campaign for Real Beauty,” launched globally in September 2004 after success in the European market, is to widen the stereotypical view of beauty, while advertising their firming lotion. The goal, while laudable, may also be shrewd. If more women feel beautiful, goes the underlying marketing premise, more will be inspired to take great care of themselves by buying beauty and hygiene products.

The campaign, developed by New York advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, with 497 offices worldwide, is also credited with helping the company sell more soap.

Exceeding their expectations, the company surpassed the $1 billion mark in 2004 global sales and expected to gain between $60 million and $70 million in lotion sales in the first year since the advent of the Campaign for Real Beauty.

The Dove campaign follows on the heels of a related initiative in which the company funded a survey of women’s self-esteem and feelings about their appearance. Only 2 percent of about 3,000 women polled internationally described themselves as beautiful.

Models Still Smaller Than Average

Some critics question how the ads might affect women who still do not fit in with the portrayal of beauty in the Dove ads. Although un-airbrushed, the range of models in the series are still smaller than the average American woman at size 14.

“They are certainly not traditional beauties, but they are not so far from the norm that they really undermine some of our social conventions,” said Katie LeBesco, whose 2004 book “Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity” looks at how fatness in contemporary society has attracted both stigma and “medicalization.”

LeBesco, associate professor of communication arts at Marymount Manhattan College, says that while it may be useful to have a wider range of body sizes and shapes in public, the campaign also serves a profit motive. “The use of real people in ads reflects a larger move, part of that is economic,” she said. “These people can be paid far less, but they can also break the ‘sameness’ of advertising.”

Other advertisers have also been departing from the idealistic body type. In the latest version of its “Just Do It” campaign, for instance, Nike, the Beaverton, Ore., maker of sporting goods and apparel, features muscular, disembodied thighs and butts, labeled “Thunder Thighs” and “Big Butt.”

The ads on the Dove Web site as well as on billboards pose questions about the woman shown. “Fat or Fabulous?” and “Wrinkled or Wonderful?” are the polling questions. Viewers are encouraged to respond by telephone or e-mail. The Web site tallies votes immediately. So far, one poll on the site counts over 700,000 responses.

“Dove has finally gotten it right,” said Marti Barletta, CEO of TrendSight Group, a Winnetka, Ill.-based consulting group that specializes in marketing to women. Dove is not one of its clients.

Selling Altruism, Sense of Connection

Market research, Barletta said, shows that women prefer to buy from altruistic companies and prefer to feel connected with others who use the products.

Dove scores on both these points. The women in the ads are closer to the average U.S. women’s dress size of 14 than a size-4 professional model. The company has also launched the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, an international effort to boost women’s self-esteem. Through the initiative Dove provides financial support to programs and organizations, especially those focusing on issues of concern to girls such as uniquely ME!, a collaboration between Dove and Girl Scouts of the USA to teach girls about healthier lifestyles.

Traditional marketing techniques, she said, are geared toward a viewer’s aspiration to an ideal, which she said tends to resonate more with men. Women, by contrast, are more likely to look for a reflection of themselves in advertising and, if they find it, to think, “If that works for her then it should work with me as well.”

“Women do not see themselves living in a pyramid but in a peer group,” said Barletta.

The models, like the untrained actors in the spate of reality TV series, are not professional and, as unpaid spokespeople, receive only stipends to cover time away from work.

Beauties Who Take Out Trash

Models in the “Real Beauty” campaign are featured on the Dove Web site as people with real lives and personalities. In addition to providing information about their favorite colors and thoughts on beauty, some models recall how they were discovered by Dove recruiters, whether at work, or just “taking out the trash” as model Gina Cristianti told The Associated Press.

While the ads have drawn a great deal of positive response, they also earned their share of detractors.

“The only time I want to see a thigh that big is in a bucket with bread crumbs on it,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lucio Guerrero of the Dove ads in a July article for the newspaper. Guerrero went on to request that “‘real people’ never pose in ads–especially not in their underwear.”

That position was seconded by Richard Roeper, also with the Chicago Sun-Times, in an article published around the same time. “When we’re talking women in their underwear, on billboards outside my living room window, give me the fantasy babes, please. If that makes me sound superficial, shallow and sexist–well, yes, I’m a man.”

The Dove ads have also spawned graffiti and parody.

“Fat girls can be corporate shills too” and “I hate my agent!” were some of the comments written on ads in New York City streets and subways.

In Dusseldorf, Germany, meanwhile, Ogilvy and Mather has launched a parody campaign in which actual executives at the advertising company appear as models. The ads, depicting chubby, pale, average-looking guys standing in their underwear are showing up in posters on the walls of bus stops.

Rachel Corbett is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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