Fashionably Informed: Hypocrisy in Beauty Marketing

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Welcome to College Fashion’s new biweekly column, Fashionably Informed. As a CF reader, it’s clear that you love fashion. But have you ever wondered about the drama that goes on behind the scenes? To keep you up to speed, this column aims to inform you about important issues and controversies in the fashion industry.


"Onslaught," Dove's controversial commercial

As you probably know, commercials aren't the first place you should look for an honest opinion about a company or product. Companies spend millions of dollars to produce their advertising campaigns. They even use tricks like Photoshop and celebrity endorsements to persuade us to buy their products. We know all this. However, is there a point where commercials go too far in the manipulation of their audience?

Well, when Dove started their "Campaign for Real Beauty," they were accused of doing just that. At first, their commercial, titled "Onslaught" and featured above, seems empowering and educational. It exposes the tremendous pressure placed on women by the beauty industry and the media. At the end, Dove sends us an important message: "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."

At first glance, Dove's commercial and campaign seem to warn women about the manipulation involved in the advertising. However, when the commercial was released, it faced backlash from multiple news outlets and blogs. Many called Dove, and its parent company, Unilever, hypocritical and manipulative. To understand why, we need some background information.

Background Info on Unilever and Dove

Unilever Logo

You may not have heard of Unilever but you definitely know their brands and probably use their products. Unilever is the parent company of Ben & Jerry's, Lipton, TRESemme, Vaseline, Suave, and many other familiar brands. However, the other Unilever brand at the center of the Dove controversy is Axe.

That's right: the "Real Beauty" champions and the brand that promises to bring "billions" of sexy women to their customers are owned by the same company. While Dove seems to empower women and advocate for healthy body image, Axe is infamous for their provocative commercials, which are often labeled as sexist. Does anyone remember those "Bow Chicka Wow Wow" commercials or the "Clean Your Balls" one

Adding to the controversy, Unilever owns some other brands that don't exactly support Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty." Although some of you may not have heard of it, the Unilever brand Fair and Lovely is extremely popular in India. As you can probably guess from the name, Fair and Lovely is a skin-lightening cream. Another Unilever brand that you may be familiar with is Slim-Fast. Both of these brands sell products meant to change your body to fit society's beauty standards, the very same ones Dove is attempting expose and erase. 

The Controversy and Backlash

As you can see, there are some glaring contradictions here. After all, any Axe, Fair and Lovely, or Slim-Fast commercial would be right at home in the stream of clips featured in Dove's "Onslaught" commercial.

This hasn't gone unnoticed: after the commercial was released, numerous media sources spotted Unilever's contradictions and exposed their hypocrisy. A parody video of Dove's "Onslaught" commercial was even made using Axe commercials (featured below):


Parody of "Onslaught": "A Message from Unilever"

Multiple news outlets, from Jezebel to CNN, reported on this controversy. A quote from Jezebel's article sums up the contradictions nicely:

"Unilever spends $809 million on advertising: it markets Dove, which encourages women to love their bodies, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, in which you can drown your sorrows if you don't love your body, and Slim-Fast to make your body thin enough to love"

Slate labeled Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" "cheap feminism," and speculated that Dove was only supporting "Real Beauty" to increase sales. Could this be just another advertising trick?

According to CNN, when asked about this controversy, Unilever's spokesperson said:

"Each brand talks to its consumers in a way that's relevant. The Dove campaign aims to give young women more confidence, where that Axe campaign is a spoof, not to be taken seriously."

With all these contradictions, we may never know the truth. Dove's campaign could be delivering Unilever's true message, while Axe's commercials could just be a "funny" joke. One thing we must remember, as Jezebel's report points out:

"The company owns about 400 brands, which in addition to the United States, reach into South America, Europe, Africa and Australia, and with any big business, and it does whatever it needs to to sell its products."

The advertising world is riddled with contradictions and hypocrisy, this is just one incident and one company. Dove, Axe, Fair & Lovely, and the other brands mentioned may be under the same parent company but all have separate agendas. Should we just allow these companies to campaign as they wish? Or should we hold these companies responsible for their impact on its audiences, as Patrick J. Cescau (Unilever CEO) advises us to? Jezebel quotes him, saying,

"You can't ignore the impact your company has on the community and environment."

What do you think?

Do you consider Unilever hypocritical in this instance? What message do you think Unilever sends to its audience with these ads? Should we hold companies responsible for the impact their advertisements have? Tell us in the comments below.