Dove viral draws heat from critics
By Jack Neff
November 26, 2007
When you unleash an "Onslaught" on YouTube, watch out
for the counterattack.
Dove's viral video attack on beauty advertising has
produced a surprisingly strong and enduring blowback
against Unilever from activists, newspaper op-ed
writers, bloggers and videographers who see it as
hypocritical coming from the same company that markets
To be sure, none of the critics is coming to the defense
of beauty-industry advertising, linked in the
"Onslaught" video to everything from low self-esteem to
plastic surgery to bulimia. Rather, they're attacking
Unilever for simultaneously trotting out its own endless
stream of buxom, scantily clad, sex-crazed women in ads
Sleight of hand
In an op-ed titled "A Company's Ugly Contradiction" in
The Boston Globe earlier this month, contributor
Michelle Gillett said, "Viewers are struggling to make
sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a
wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads [for
Axe] exhort boys to make 'nice girls naughty.' ...
Unilever is in the business of selling products, not
values, and that means we, the consumers, are being
manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad
WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather handles Dove. Bartle Bogle
Hegarty, part owned by Publicis Groupe, handles Axe, and
Edelman handles public relations for both brands.
"Onslaught," from Ogilvy, Toronto, has amassed about 1
million views on YouTube since its Oct. 1 debut, still
well under the 12 million generated by its oft-honored
predecessor, "Evolution," whose viewership also got a
boost from the new video.
But even with lower viewership, "Onslaught" already has
produced two rather trenchant critiques. The latest,
with 40,000 views and numerous blog links, mashes the
Dove video with Axe ads and morphs the original tagline
"Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does"
to " ... before Unilever does."
Thanks to the power of digital targeting, display ads
for Dove Pro-Age body lotion surrounded one blog post
linked to that video last week.
Insider speaks out
As it turns out, the Dove-Axe mashup was an
inside-the-industry job created by Rye Clifton, a senior
strategic planner at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin
Agency, Richmond, Va. Mr. Clifton was quick to point out
in a phone interview that the video was his own idea and
done on his own time. Martin doesn't represent any
Unilever rivals, having parted ways with Burt's Bees
before the video was posted last month.
Mr. Clifton said he was unaware Dove and Axe were owned
by the same company until it was brought up by another
planner during a conference. "My immediate thought was
that would make a perfect video on YouTube," Mr. Clifton
said, adding it's had more of an impact than he
imagined, with more than 100 blog postings. While he was
struck by the hypocrisy, he did concede a bit of
professional rivalry also entered his mind, given the
numerous industry honors Dove and Axe have received.
"Onslaught" also accomplished what four years of racy
Axe ads hadn't -- getting the Campaign for a
Commercial-Free Childhood to demand Unilever stop
running Axe ads. While the group already was aware of
Axe and of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, the
specifics of the "Onslaught" push set it off.
"The whole idea of 'Talk to your daughter before the
beauty industry does' certainly motivated us to do a
campaign around this," said a spokesman for the group.
"Unilever is the beauty industry. To point fingers at
other brands and at the same time be taking advantage of
the same horrific marketing other companies are doing is
'Whack a Blonde'
By last week, the "Onslaught" backlash had metastasized
to blog bashing of another Unilever brand, Sunsilk.
Blogger Lucinda Marshall, in an entry headlined,
"Unilever ditches self-esteem as a marketing concept,
embraces misogyny," criticized a "Whack a Blonde" game
on a new website for Sunsilk, colorshowdown.com (to be
fair, the site has a "Whack a Brunette" game for
disgruntled blondes as well).
"Onslaught" also helped spawn a story in The Sacramento
Bee probing controversies surrounding Axe, though the
article, amid a cast of Axe-bashers, pointed to a
women's-studies student who finds the ads amusing.
That's exactly the point Unilever would like to make:
Axe has just been poking fun all along, even if Dove is
"The Axe campaign is a spoof of 'mating game' and men's
desire to get noticed by women and not meant to be taken
literally," the company said in a statement. "Unilever
is a large, global company with many brands in its
portfolio. Each brand's efforts are tailored to reflect
the unique interests and needs of its audience."
That, however, is the sort of distinction social media's
transparency renders difficult, said Jim Nail, chief
marketing and strategy officer for brand-monitoring firm
Cymfony. "Only one in 100 people may know that Unilever
owns both brands," he said. "But that one person is
likely to be participating in social media."
And when that one person tells the other 99, it can
change the nature of the conversation fast, he said,
noting a stream of comments about "Onslaught" recently
on Shape.com that rapidly shifted from praise to
condemnation of Unilever when a poster noted that the
company also owns Axe.
"Most people have been really positive about
'Onslaught,'" said Stacie Bright, senior communications
marketing manager for Unilever. The controversy, she
said, "has just been part of the conversation."
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