Giles Keeble: why Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty campaign qualifies as a Modern Classic

It seems there have always been difficult categories for creative advertising: over the years that would have included detergents, oral care, personal care – including hair products, and yellow fats (there are others) – the brands that creative departments would have dreaded.

Yet most good agencies, believing that distinctive advertising can be effective, will have tried their best before the creative director pulls them off bruised and bleeding and gives the brief to the pragmatic team hired for the pragmatic purpose. Yet sometimes there are breakthroughs: Axe/Lynx proved the lie to all those who said great work couldn’t be done on deodorants. Some of the Ariel and Tide work from P&G, and work for Persil has proved the same for detergents. Lurpak has done some brilliant work on butter.

It can still be difficult, because not only does the agency need to care and try hard, but the client needs to want them to. It is too easy to say that clients get the work they deserve because creative arrogance and injunctions to trust the agency’s superior judgement are often not the best approach.

There are, however, good clients who have encouraged and got great work: we can all name a few from our own experience, perhaps too few. The attitude of the client, and how much effort the agency makes to understand the issues, are key. Multinational clients often have an unspoken or even subconscious model of how advertising works that may be at odds with what the brand needs or the agency is trying to do. In some of the workshops I used to run we would give actual examples of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Ask clients if – after a year or so – they want the same kind of advertising as the competition, they will of course say no. Yet there is usually regression to the mean. I don’t think I am alone in having put together reels of a category’s spots and print work to illustrate how you cannot tell one brand from another. I once had a senior P&G client who dressed in black with cowboy boots and who told me that he wanted great advertising. I decided to offer him a small team if he also formed a small team of himself and his brand manager, and to agree clear objectives and a short deadline with a guarantee that the results would be at least as good as anything done in the normal time of a year plus. He declined.

When a client says he wants ‘water-cooler’ work (a US term that means work that gets discussed around the office water-cooler) time should be spent finding out what he or she means and if they really mean it. What are the criteria, and are they agreed and shared? Clients need to understand what they want from their agencies (and it can differ from strategy plus work to just the work) and to allow them to do what they have been hired for. We have all had clients who hire a dog and then bark themselves. Is what you, the agency, think the client wants the same as what they, the client, actually wants? And vice versa. Sadly, these discussions often only take place when the business is about to be put out to pitch.

It can help if you spend time agreeing what the category conventions are, then seeing what happens if you get rid of them. The man in the white coat? The hair toss shot? The bite and smile? Good sensitive qualitative research plus common sense can help here. I once did a Wella print ad in response to research indicating that women hated all the unsubstantiated stuff about natural ingredients and as a result showed a ‘side by side’ of a beautiful woman with one side of her head shaven. Yes, well.

(In a slightly different vein, I recently came across a charming little ad I did for J&J in Hong Kong for ‘No more tears’ shampoo: the picture was a close up of a cute little baby’s eyes looking up at his lathered hair with the line ‘J&J introduce a shampoo for eyes’ with short explanatory copy. I always made a point of asking for back-translations of all Chinese copy. The headline had been altered to ‘J&J introduce a shampoo for eyes – It’s for hair really.’)

All this leads to my admiration for some of the work that Dove has been doing recently for girls and women. (The Dove for Men work is better and fresher than it used to be, but in my opinion good not great ). The Campaign for Real Beauty came out in 2004, initially on posters in the UK. A viral film, Evolution (below), later won a Cannes Grand Prix in 2007. As a father of daughters as well as sons, I thought the approach was brave and differentiated Dove. Self-esteem is important.

Reaction both within and outside Unilever has been mixed. For consumers, there is always a risk that social and cultural issue advertising is criticised for using the issue for the benefit of the brand more than the issue. Having worked with Unilever around the world facilitating various courses, I saw some internal uncertainty. One seemed to be that ‘Latin’ men felt that women would use anything they could to make themselves look as good as possible and that ‘real beauty’ essentially equalled ugly. This may also have been reflected outside.

The business issue was how to sell product off an issue campaign – a problem also relevant to other brands: for example within Unilever I would guess it might include the importance of play and exploration for Persil, and the importance of mealtimes for Knorr. My assessment of this challenge was that The Campaign for Real Beauty got side-lined if not dropped, even though I believe the Self-Esteem Fund may have continued. Its strength was its insight and humanity; its weakness was that it was up against billions of dollars promoting all the ‘campaigns for unreal beauty’.

I do not know the ins and outs of what has happened, but it would seem that the client and the agency jointly realised that CFRB was a different strategy and positioning from the competition, and that there must be ways of making it work as an effective business campaign as well as an emotional one. Women use all kinds of different products and brands for different occasions. If Dove is now the ‘essential’ day to day brand that is seen as natural, empathetic and trustworthy, that is not a bad place to be.

So let’s go back. ‘Little Girls’ (2006) was emotional and not at all bad but the recent ‘Camera Shy’ makes the point so much better. ‘Evolution’ was a great spot (though it is sad to know that apparently some of the ‘real women’ in other ads were also retouched, such is the power of the media). Part of the power of ‘Camera Shy’ comes not just from its truthful observation, but the casting, the direction and the choice of music. And ‘Sketches’ -which I have shown to a number of women, some of whom had already seen it – is quite an emotional piece of work. Alongside these, the banner campaign to get rid of negative advertising about fatness and weight loss, was a great addition to the overall campaign.

I’m sure that Unilever and O&M are proud of what they have done, and of their combined belief that, in the end, they have something special that might make a difference to the brand and also to their consumers. I have been charged by MAA with looking for ‘modern classics’: as a campaign, I believe Dove is a candidate because it is dealing with issues that would not have even have been considered some years ago- despite Virginia Slims way back in 1968 telling women ‘You’ve come a long way baby!’ As someone recently wrote: breaking the glass ceiling begins with breaking the glass mirror.

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About Giles Keeble

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Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.