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May 20, 2008

Airbrushing the Brand

David Rogers
Director, Center on Global Brand Leadership
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Unilever’s Dove brand has garnered enormous attention and much goodwill for its 4-year “Campaign for Real Beauty.”

At Columbia’s BRITE ’08 conference in February, Mike Hemingway of Ogilvy discussed how his company has helped Dove build a PR, social media and viral video campaign aimed at fostering conversation and community around a new definition of beauty — one that runs counter to the narrow, air-brushed definition of mainstream fashion.

Here’s a 90-second clip from his talk:



It turns out that Dove’s refreshingly atypical beauties from its print campaign (freckled, wrinkled, flat-chested, large-thighed, etc.) may have been. . . airbrushed!

The scoop came out in a New Yorker profile on airbrush maestro Pascal Dangin, igniting commentary in the blogosphere and advertising press.

Anyone in the advertising field knows that minor photo correction is standard. But had Unilever betrayed the very values of authenticity that the entire Campaign for Real Beauty was based upon?

In an Ad Age article, an Ogilvy spokeswoman expressed doubt that any significant alterations were made. But in the New Yorker, Dangin is quoted as saying “It was. . . a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”

But even if Dangin’s account is true, is that really hypocritical? After all, Dove’s message was that a freckled/wrinkled/etc. woman can be as beautiful as anyone else. Not that she shouldn’t be well lit, sharply dressed. . . and using Dove products.

What matters is the customer’s opinion, however, and the airbrushing story has the potential to tarnish a powerful brand image.

It also highlights the importance of transparency in an age of blogs and the growing flow of information among and between customers. Media companies, like newspapers and record labels, have been hit hardest by this technological change, but the revolution is also impacting consumer packaged goods like Dove.

As Clay Shirky writes in his new book on social media, Here Comes Everybody:

We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the media businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world.

In an age of interactive media, managing that flow of information will get harder and harder.