Unilever Accused Of Campaign For Real Hypocrisy

Thanks to HighJive for spotting this LA Times article spotlighting Unilever, the makers of Dove, Axe, and Fair & Lovely skin whitening products:

A consumer group accused Unilever of hypocrisy Tuesday for running conflicting advertising campaigns — one for Dove that praises women and their natural beauty and one for Axe that the group said “blatantly objectifies and degrades” them.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched a letter-writing effort on its website and demanded that the company pull ads for the Axe line of grooming products for men, which one online pitch says makes “nice girls turn naughty.”
Unilever shouldn’t be commended for Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” while promoting products with a starkly different message, said Susan Linn, the consumer group’s director and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“The campaign says they’re going to help girls to resist a toxic marketing environment but they’re creating that environment as well,” Linn said.
Unilever spokeswoman Anita Larson said the Axe ads were clearly spoofs.

Maybe Axe is tongue-in-cheek, but this Unilever ad isn’t a spoof, when it blatantly suggests Indian women need to whiten their skin to acheive “total fairness” in both their skin tone and in hiring practices:

I’ve talked about Unilever and its double-standards for some time now. In this week’s Ad Age, Bob Garfield also does a good job summarizing the issue:

We harbor no doubts about the sincerity of all concerned. In fact, we suppose many of those involved relish the opportunity not only, for once in their careers, to promulgate a positive, genuinely humane message but to also expiate their past sins. In that sense, at least for now, the exercise is not at all cynical. On the contrary, it is the path to redemption.
The hard part will be staying on the path. What happens when Dove sales begin to flag and market share begins to slide? That will be the test of true righteousness. Does the “Campaign for Real Beauty” then get disposed of, like last year’s fashions, or dubiously “enhanced,” like a pair of fake breasts?
We’d like to believe that the values embraced here are invulnerable to the onslaught of market forces. But we don’t.

In the LA Times article, Larson went on to say, “Each brand effort is tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience.” Check. In other words, Unilever itself pays more attention to its sales than its values or the impression its advertising makes on people. I suppose that’s a lesson little girls need to learn from a very young age.

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for TalentZoo.com. Dan published the best of his TalentZoo.com columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. Is it only little girls?
    I mean they get to play sports now so they can do well in math.
    (reference comment in design oberver)
    My sons developed values by the age of thirteen. Are they really only reachable by spoofs at that age?
    Of course the answer is no. But how to target those boys. gals could be easier. Everyone knows it’s easier to sell to women. Put a pink ribbon on it (but certainly not the psychodelic one.)
    And NO! I am not against donating to breast cancer, I just know that renal cancer is hard to cure, too, but they didn’t but a sticker on my refrigerator.
    As for hypocricy from wikipedia
    Though hypocrisy is frequently invoked as an accusation in debates, a few theorists have studied the utility of hypocrisy, and in some cases have suggested that the conflicts manifested as hypocrisy are a necessary or even beneficial part of human behavior and society.[1]
    [1]Nils Brunsson (2003). The Organization of Hypocrisy: Talk, Decisions and Actions in Organizations. Copenhagen Business School Press; 2Rev Ed edition. ISBN 978-8763001069

  2. hippie chick says:

    What’s all this talk about soap?
    In all truth, not many humans work rigorous enough in cubicles that we get dirty enough to require the use of so much soap in showers up to two times a day. Pits and Pubes require special care, but the vast majority of our skin?
    (Please, no “where are we in France?” comments.)
    Ingredients like this:
    Ingredients Aqua, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Glycerin, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Parfum, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Isopropyl Palmitate, Carbomer, Allantoin, Sodium Lactate, TEA-Lactate, Serine, Lactic Acid, Urea, Sorbitol, Lauryl Diethylenediaminoglycine, Lauryl Aminopropylglycine, Trideceth-7, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Citrate, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Alcohol Denat., CI 77891. BC4 000388 177000 (250ml pump bottle), 4 000388 179004 (500ml refill)
    don’t speak natural beauty to me. Though some of those things really are just chemical identifications: Isopropyl Palmitate – The ester of isopropyl alcohol and palmitic acid from coconut oil.
    Ingredients like this do:
    Castile Soap, Coconut Oil, Fruit Oil, Tea Tree Leaf Oil
    When bloggers have green activity day on the 15th, one possibility, besides eating all those organics, is to just try for a day to go without Sodium Laureth Sulfate, a detergent and suffocant, and blog about it–tell the world if people tell you “you stink” in Whole Foods.

  3. Here’s a paragraph from Tom Asaker’s February 2007 post:
    Does it matter to us, as potential customers, that we’re being played by Unilever to sell soap? Does it rub us the wrong way, or do we simply suspend disbelief, as we do with movies and other forms of entertainment, and go along for the ride? Do we take offense at the instrumentality of their business model, or do we embrace it as good “storytelling”and buy in to the brand sham?
    I’m not a Dove soap customer, but I’m inclined to believe the LAST THING women consider when they watch a Dove spot is Unilver’s supposed duplicity. They’re not thinking, hey this is brought to me by the same people that market Axe; ergo I do not trust nor appreciate this natural beauty message.

  4. David, isn’t that at the heart of this odd debate? That is, should we care about a corporation’s overall track record? A recent post at AdPulp questioned the ad sincerity of corporations like BP, Dow and some other oil company. When you consider the latest Dove “Onslaught” spot, one can’t help but wonder if any of the images depicted came from other Unilever brands. Do people care? Probably not. Should they care? The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood members apparently think so.

  5. Should they care if a company like Unilever has multiple brands, each with its own identity and market strategy?
    I don’t think so.
    Instead of concerning ourselves with The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, how about we turn our attention to the war in Iraq, the move to war in Iran, the fact that the oil industry took the White House illegally twice, you know, REAL stuff that matters.

  6. Well, David, it’s true there are lots of more important things to debate and be concerned about. It’s also true that Unilever has multiple brands with multiple identities. The issue arises because Dove took the political stance of attacking an industry, as well as essentially attacking its own brother and sister brands. It would have been less hypocritical if they simply embraced real beauty versus attacking the beauty industry that Unilever is very much a part of. That’s what makes it at least debatable at your local bar. Or blog. The truth is, The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is probably more concerned over the effects of media and messages on our kids than Dove.

  7. Lots of marketing professionals are picking up on this story, rightfully so. Does an umbrella company have a responsibility to keep messages consistent between diametrically opposed brands? How does GM simultaneously speak to Hummer buyers and green-conscious buyers of its Chevy cars? The Creative Director of my agency–Pure Brand Communications–just blogged about this here, and I thought he raised some great questions: http://purethinking.typepad.com/pure_thinking_a_streamofc/2007/10/unilevers-confl.html

  8. Is this only about Dove and Unilever or about PR too.
    From PRWEEK
    What was the research for onslaught?
    Dove, along with Edelman, decided to utilize this strategy to generate sales for its beauty products and new product line, Dove Firming. The team armed itself with the results from a major global study of woman’s attitudes toward beauty conducted by StrategyOne, Edelman’s opinion research division, and soon after, the “Campaign for Real Beauty” (CFRB) was born. More than 3,000 women in 10 countries took part, and the results became the basis for all of the PR programming. The campaign would target women of all ages, including young girls who needed to foster their positive self-image, and encouraged men to join the dialogue.
    Dove became a sponsor of American Women in Radio & Television to increase exposure among the key influencer group. The Dove Self-Esteem Fund was then formed to tap into Unilever’s existing partnership with the Girl Scouts of the USA, and the Dove CFRB essay and photo tour contest was used to encourage girls to capture “real beauty.”
    The PR program was timed to coincide with the launch of the Dove Firming ad campaign, which featured six real women posing – unretouched – in their underwear. Consumers were given an opportunity to meet the women at a photo shoot in Times Square, where they could sign a Dove Self-Esteem Fund pledge banner. For each name signed, a dollar was donated to the “Uniquely Me!” program designed to help build self-esteem in young girls.
    The six Dove Firming women appeared on the season premiere of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Oprah, which created a pop-culture phenomenon. The campaign generated more than 650 million impressions during the summer of 2005, and nearly four hours of broadcast time, including 10 minutes on the Today show.
    But perhaps the most important gauge for success is the fact that over one million visitors logged into the CFRB website, sharing their thoughts about how the campaign changed their lives.

  9. One million visitors, Richard.
    and focking firming cream.
    I’d have more self esteem for my firm butt, but …
    but what? I don’t have a proper career in PR and I’m too full of myself to work as a cashier in Walmart.