Dove beauty products get a lot of free press in favor of their Real Beauty marketing campaign series, ongoing for years. The ads show women of several races smiling and laughing, wearing modest white bras and panties. Dove Real Beauty models are all larger than is standard for the industry, and this is the source of praise.
It’s pretty common to see side-by-side comparisons of Dove Real Beauty ads with Victoria’s Secret Love My Body ads. Both campaigns feature a multi-ethnic mix of attractive women with clear skin standing roughly in a line while wearing underwear. But this comparison is off because the two companies are advertising completely different products, underwear and skincare. It would be better to contrast Victoria’s Secret with Hanes or Lane Bryant, and Dove with Axe.
Dove is owned by the parent company Unilever, which also owns the Axe line for men. They are, quite intentionally, duplicate product lines. There’s lady skin toner and dudely toner, lady lotion and dudely lotion, and of course lady and dude varieties of body wash. Lord knows Axe targets its products to young men who want a reassuringly heterosexual manly lather.
In fact, Axe commercials promise the men who buy their products they will “get the girl”, invariably a lean white model who looks more like a Victoria’s Secret model than a Dove model. Dove markets self love and body acceptance to women, while Axe markets sex with conventionally hot models. But that’s not all Axe puts in its commercials.
Axe ads are cited among the most sexist in recent history. Quite literally promising the product will make women throw themselves at Axe users, the ads go so far as to have a contest where the prize is a date with one of their models. With one series, they said “The cleaner you are, the dirtier you get” with visual implication that the “dirty” you’ll get is a sexually promiscuous woman. In a magazine stunt, Axe had lift-the-flap clothing over a topless model, so that men could use preschool cardboard book technology to feel pervy.
On their own, Dove’s ads might seem like a slightly more inclusive beauty product campaign, a step in the right direction but still with a focus on sales. But when considered with Axe‘s ads, it’s clearly a cynical profit-driven exercise. The products are virtually the same except for packaging and scent, but the marketing is decidedly different.
There are no men in Dove Real Beauty ads. While the women are both attractive and in a state of partial undress, sex and sex appeal are not being used. Instead body confidence as a less thin woman (because the Dove models are still on the smaller end of large) is the promise. “Love your curvy self with skincare products” is the message.
The men in Axe ads are also not industry standard. They tend to be less muscular and smaller than the male ideal. But rather than tell men their bodies are okay, Axe ads tell consumers these products will help them get laid. And not by women who look like Dove models. Axe ads do feature women, in sexual poses and with textual innuendo.
I can’t give Dove credit when I know what Axe is like. Slightly expanding the margins of loveable body types for a women’s product line, while reinforcing all the causes of women’s bodies being declared unacceptable in the men’s line, is hypocrisy. And hypocrites shouldn’t receive praise for the good they say but do not mean.