Nov 26, 2007

Dove Gets The Axe Effect

It was sort of inevitable.

At some point, people were going to figure out that Dove was made by Unilver. And that despite the high-minded messaging of the Cannes-award winning Dove viral videos, Unilever, the parent company, still made a whole mess of products that perpetuated the "beauty myth" the Dove advertising bemoans.

Now Axe is certainly one of those products, though it's clear (to me anyway) that the message is pretty tongue-in-cheek. I'm far more bothered that Unilever makes a skin-lightening cream for women in India. (Or so sayeth my fellow blogger, High Jive, who is very up on these sorts of things.)

So Exhibit A is the YouTube video above, a mash-up of Axe ads and the latest Dove video, "Onslaught." It was put together by a planner at the Martin Agency and it's already logged over 40,000 hits.

Exhibit B is this article in Ad Age, about the backlash, which, it seems, has even included editorials in newspapers like the Boston Globe.

My take: It's too easy for us to forget that the megabrands we deal with come with a history. And with a parent company. Dove is Unilever. It's not some homemade soap that's only sold in Whole Foods. There's a lot of history, a lot of older ads featuring the very same unrealistically airbrushed models they're now whining about, and (of course) a parent company that's one of the prime villains behind "The Beauty Myth."

And while I very much appreciate the sentiment behind the Dove campaign, it was foolish of them to think they could launch that positioning without acknowledging their parentage and their past.


Anonymous said...

Very foolish, but easy to understand with the siloed world of Brand Managers at a large company.

I do agree with you though that Axe is not being all that serious with their advertising. They're making a joke, not a claim as I blogged about a while back:

Anonymous said...

I disagree.

Most consumers have no clue who Dove's or Axe's parent company is, nor do they care.

I agree it creates a moral quandary, but Unilever is a corporation and therefore, by law, amoral.

But in the marketplace, Joe X and Jane Y don't know or care who owns these products.

Alan Wolk said...

@Yikes: I don't think you disagree at all. Re-read the Ad Age article. The point was that, as you say most consumers have no clue who the parent company is. But as word gets out, both in the 2.0-sphere and in the mainstream press (e.g. editorials in the Boston Globe) people are becoming aware and the hypocrisy of the campaign is becoming evident.

Anonymous said...


First, I have to disagree that by definition corporations are amoral. The facts just don't permit such a generalization. But those who believe this, such as Yikes, are unlikely to ever believe otherwise.

Second, I'm not sure that most purchasers of products care who the Mother Ship is. Yes, Unilever owns the Dove brand, but when I shop I seldom stop to think about who owns the brands; I only care about the specific qualities of the product purchased.

However, as you and others, including me, blog about these topics, a general awareness arises and some backlash is inevitable. Does it negate the affect that the positive marketing image portrayed by Dove creates? I don't know the numbers but something tells me that we bloggers don't move mass numbers of people in terms of their purchasing decisions. We likely speak to the choir.

Toad, wonderfully thought-provoking post. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

what makes me laugh is that a lot of advertising folks seem to believe that the dove strategy is anything more than just that - a strategy. they'll do it as long as it works and then switch back to, i'm guessing, showing hot people.

nobody at unilever really believes in "real beauty". they believe in their bottom line.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, however, I still disagree about them finding out.

Call me cynical, but people don't give a shit about important issues with the government. Why would they care about Dove/Axe/Skin Whitening cream?

It's possible there could be backlash, but let's face it, just like not everyone's a 30-something upscale hipster, not everyone's a critical thinker.

And just because I stated corporations are amoral (look up their legal definition if you think I'm wrong) doesn't mean I think that's the way it should be.

HighJive said...

For the record (which another comment correctly recognizes is essentially preaching to the choir—and a small one at that), we’ve always found the Dove work to be most questionable on other levels. First, Dove is now criticizing tactics it originally helped to create. It’s almost like a reformed criminal or politician versus a truly concerned advertiser. We want to believe, but also harbor skepticism. Plus, Dove has not even been true to its own cause. When it introduced a line extension for a facial product, Dove used one of the Desperate Housewives as a spokeswoman. And its packaging and shampoo products still depict model-type women. There are other gripes—including Dove’s exclusive definition of “real beauty”—but it’s all semi-irrelevant here.

Long term, consumers will view advertisers on a more global scale, judging them as corporate citizens as well as product suppliers. After all, look at the advertising efforts of the oil and chemical companies, in addition to the new “green” craze and healthier food offerings from traditional junk-food manufacturers.

In the end, Dove ignited its own potential backlash. If they simply proceeded to hype “real beauty,” it might have gone smoothly. But their latest video made a strong criticism of the advertising industry, which put them in a “People in glass houses…” scenario.

But as always, that’s just one blogger’s opinion.

Anonymous said...


Assuming we don't know the definition of amoral does speaks more to cynicism than to the point being made. It represents a non-starter. But not one to shy away from a willingness to engage in conversation, let me further explain my point.

I know of no corporation that is amoral. Morals and ethics come from the business culture, not a logo or an annual report or brick and mortar or what those things represent to consumers. Therefore, everything a corporation says or does speaks to its culture's morals. We may not like their morals or ethics, but all corporations have them.

Like all living things, morals do not remain eternally fixed: They grow, shrink, change and go through many phases during the life of any human being or group of human beings. To that point, what Unilever, to take one example, says or does comes from its values, which grew out of its culture's morals and ethics. I believe those values will impact customer loyalty to the brand but not necessarily to its sub-brands such as Dove.

Alan Wolk said...

What's interesting to me is how big the backlash is going to be.

We've already seen that it's moved beyond a few ad-industry bloggers to the pages of the Boston Globe.

And the mocking YouTube video has 40k hits - so that's gone beyond adland too, even though the video was created by an ad planner.

So I'm curious to see where it ends up. Given the antipathy - ranging from skepticism to active dislike- so many people have for large corporations, how much backlash is Dove in for?

HighJive makes an excellent point that by mocking the beauty industry in the latest video, they set themselves up for this. And that they'd be guilty of hypocrisy even if they were an independent brand.

Anonymous said...


I'm not going to argue. You and I disagree about a detail, but probably not the big picture.

Back and forth will solve nothing, I'm just stating the way I see it.

Have a good one.

HighJive said...

OK, apologies in advance if this comment winds a bit before making a point.

First, originally figured yikes had misspelled immoral in the earlier comment. But if yikes contends that corporations are amoral, it’s important to note the contention is completely wrong (sorry, yikes). There are plenty of corporations with strong and blatant moral-based foundations—and it’s usually rooted in the founder’s personal religious bent. Additionally, a corporation’s advertising (as well as the advertising of its sub-brands) inevitably defines the moral personality for consumers. Hell, some might argue that institutions like the Catholic Church are corporations. Maybe yikes can present a technically legal argument, but as always, perception trumps reality and the law.

Consumers do give a shit about a corporation’s position on issues. Minorities, for example, have been attracted to corporations that contribute to their communities—and they’ve boycotted those who violate the public trust. People (and we mean everyone, not just minorities) will also protest corporations for everything from animal testing to its foreign child-labor policies, regardless of any original love for a specific product. Conversely, they’ll embrace the do-gooders, which is why so many corporations do good things and then hype it via advertising.

In the case of Unilever and Dove, it may be important to consider a distinction between the public not knowing versus the public not caring. The public, for the most part, does not know that Unilever creates Dove, just as they don’t know Ogilvy & Mather creates Dove’s advertising. The marketing/advertising world’s details have always been fuzzy (and even deliberately hidden) for consumers.

But once they find out, they may indeed question the motivations and morals of Unilever and Dove. IMHO, they should.

As we’ve always argued, the hypocrisy of Dove’s position also comes from the brand’s inability to even affect change among its own sister and brother brands (and you may search our blog to confirm that). Ultimately, the public will not make distinctions between a brand and a corporation—the two are tied once the public knows.

Did that long-winded comment make any sense?

Anonymous said...

Herein is the big question: are brands the same as corporations?

I'd argue that Unilever (the corporation) is amoral (realistically, the market decides their morals), while Dove (the brand) has morals.

I'm comfortable disagreeing, but that's what I think. I'm not saying anyone else is right or wrong, and maybe I'm just super cynical, but everything I've read and seen tells me so.

And yes, HighJive, you made perfect sense, and I don't totally agree or disagree. I think you make some excellent points.

I think Dove's "morals" are simply marketing ploys, albeit the kind we should embrace.

HighJive said...

To consumers, there usually isn’t a distinction between brands and corporations, though things can vary from brand/corporation to brand/corporation. For example, S.C. Johnson literally calls itself “A Family Company.” Anyone who’s had to suffer producing for that client knows every spot must be tagged with the mnemonic and spoken phrase, regardless of the specific product or brand. Would you say S.C. Johnson is acting in an amoral fashion? Nabisco pulls a similar tactic. Sure, there are companies like Philip Morris and ExxonMobil who probably prefer to conceal their morals, except when they’re hosting some artistic or humanitarian effort. Then they don their cultural or concerned moral identity.

Maybe we’re talking semantics here, but in the end, consumers probably don’t distinguish between brands and corporations. They do, however, recognize the moral identities—whether real or positioned by Madison Avenue hucksters.

Cleaver said...

I'm a little confused here: How can a corporation (at least a publicly listed one) be anything other than amoral?

My understanding is that company directors are required by law to maximise the profits of the company and the returns to shareholders above all else.

That doesn't mean that companies can't do good things, that individuals working within the company can't be moral, or that companies can't generally act ethically, expecially if there's commercial value in it.

But it does mean that when moral concerns come into conflict with the bottom line, the bottom line wins. I'm fairly sure directors and CEOs can be removed if they make any other choice.

I know there was debate some years ago about making companies responsible to "stakeholders" (unions, local communities, the environment) rather than simply shareholders, but as far as i know no jurisdiction ever enacted such laws.

Anonymous said...

Cleaver articulated that way better than I did.

Now I'm going to go write some ads.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I've always felt the YouTube videos in this campaign were truer to the creatives behind it (their own wishes to work on a brand that was less Unilever and more Burt's Bees, to work for an agency that was less Ogilvy and more Wieden) than it was to the actual brand, much less its parent company. Granted, few outside the ad biz would see it that way.

Perhaps any backlash or bad press should be taken as another lesson about the importance of staying true to what your product actually is than what you as an award-hungry creative wish it was. A lesson David Ogilvy himself might have preached, no doubt.

Alas, staying true to the product is an old-fashioned notion in these times of sell-the-category, brand-be-damned, awards-at-any-cost behavior.

The bad press surrounding this will also make it harder for creatives to use YouTube et al as an easier route to "cool ideas" they can't get the client to run on TV. And considering the outcome here, that's a good thing if you're the brand manager who'll end up taking the heat for it.

Regardless, once the dust settles the only certainty here is probably this: day to day, it's yet another reason for clients to doubt creatives' motives.

Great. Just what we all need.

HighJive said...

cleaver and yikes,

Maybe we’re all dealing with semantics. Plus, I’m not an MBA or legal guru, and might lean toward ill-informed idealism. But surely you’ll agree many corporations are adopting a more humane bent, where profit alone doesn’t dictate every decision. Think about corporations like Ben & Jerry’s or The Body Shop. Look at the result of toy corporations whose bottom-line obsession led to, well, lead. I’ll concede that the majority of U.S. business is driven by greed, um, profit. But there is a growing segment that believes it is imperative to consider other components—moral ones at that. I’d also wager that as society progresses, and the next generations assume a greater role, we’ll see more “moral” corporations.

Anonymous said...


It is indeed semantics. But I'd urge you to consider this: what is driving that decision? The market.

It's not morals. It's capitalism.

And while S.C. Johnson, The Body Shop (which started when they were privately held) and Ben & Jerry's (among others) choose to donate money to moral issues of the founders' wishes, if the market stops telling them to do so, most, if not all, corporations will.

Just check out a book or the documentary The Corporation. It actually covers a lot of this stuff in great detail and is a fascinating read.


Anonymous said...

Amoral, immoral, i.e., e.g., and a Get Shorty quote comes to mind.


Toad and Hj know where I stand. I’ve bitched enough about the hypocrisy of this even though people were throwing kudos at this campaign like singles at a strip club.

Regardless of what consumers know about a brand or its marketing tactics and strategies, the company/brand are still responsible for doing what’s right, not just profitable. Doubtful many at Unilever see the irony here, more likely they view this as their brands having different ‘voices’ for all their different customers, like some big brand melting pot where we all get along.

Brands are myopic like that. That’s why they’re brands. Creatives and agencies are supposed to help see them through that. Even still, the customer doesn’t know the gory details behind the curtain.

Take this behavior to extremes and you have Enron, which manipulated everyone from the government down to the little old ladies who lost their life’s savings.

Yes, Enron and Unilever are at two ends of the moral spectrum. The point is however, as a company, you have a responsibility to know that everything you do affects people and your consumers.

They may in fact be ‘your wife’ as David Ogilvy once famously said, and, in many cases, customers actually may be as dumb as some brands treat them–but that doesn’t give you a right to take advantage of them, let alone talk down to them.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Did Unilever take advantage in this case like Enron? Of course not. People didn’t die and nobody lost their savings. But what I think they’re guilty of is hypocrisy with conflicting brand messages. Messages which are NOT the 'different brand voices' Unilever thinks they are. Again though, all brands are guilty of this.

One issue this mash raises: you basically have a major agency in Martin firing a shot across the bow of a major brand and the work of its AOR. I’ve seen how some agencies react to brands after getting fired and the truth comes out, (Careerbuilder and Cramer-Krasselt), but I haven’t really seen a dig like this except from bloggers like us.


Anonymous said...

agree with MTLB.

where do unilever get the balls to a) get on their high horse about the damage wrought by the beauty industry, and, b) preach to me about how i should raise my daughters?

their solution: i should talk to my daughter about the beauty industry. oh, really? yeah, that'll work.

talking: advertising's superficial panacea for every child-related issue.

i understand unilever (and their agency) are currently high on the fumes of the PR and awards generated by this campaign but for the love of god don't get sanctimonious. don't pretend you (whoever you are) really care.

don't try to pretend you're not uni-f**king-lever!!!