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Unilever shuns stereotypes of women (unless talking to men)


Andrew Adam Newman

New York Times

October 15, 2007


The latest iteration of Unilever’s “Real Beauty” advertising campaign for Dove products, which celebrates women of all shapes and sizes, urges girls to reject the underfed and oversexualized images of women that dominate advertising.

But ads for another Unilever brand, Axe body spray for men, feature a fictitious female rock band, the Bom Chicka Wah Wahs, who wear lingerie and stilettos and sing lyrics like “If you have that aroma on, you can have our whole band.” The band’s video has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube; one singer says in a faux bio on Axe’s Web site: “I’m a classically trained ballerina but I’ve discovered that tutus and pirouettes are no match for lingerie and pole dancing.”

Hypocrisy? So says the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a consumer group better known for its efforts to keep junk food ads off children’s television. The organization is encouraging people to write letters to Unilever asking it to “ax the Axe campaign.”

While both the Axe and Dove campaigns have percolated for years, Susan Linn, director of the consumer group, said that what piqued her organization’s interest was a new Dove video, “Onslaught,” that encourages parents to “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.” “Onslaught” criticizes advertising images that make women feel they should look thinner or younger; it was viewed about 600,000 times in the first week it was posted to YouTube.

Ms. Linn said the video is typical of the “Real Beauty” effort in that it “gets Unilever a lot of kudos, and allows them to keep making products that undermine this message.” She said her group’s online campaign has prompted people to send more than 1,800 letters to Patrick Cescau, Unilever’s chief executive.

Anita Larson, a Unilever spokeswoman, called the Axe campaign a spoof “not meant to be taken literally.” “Unilever is a large global company with many brands in our portfolio,” she said. “Each brand effort is tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience.”

Among other places, Axe is advertised on MTV, where 36 percent of the audience is under 18, according to Magna Global Media Research. The phrase bom chika wah wah, used throughout Axe’s advertising, refers to the sound of the standard guitar licks in 1970s sex exploitation movies.

Ms. Larson said the Axe brand regularly tests its campaign with men and women, and “they have shared that they see these ads as very clever and very funny.”


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