The £3bn toiletries brand was one of the first brands to embrace ‘femvertising’, but its body-shaped flasks have been roundly ridiculed. Can it repair the damage?

Dove’s Real Beauty bottles: the idea of translating different body shapes into plastic is crass.

Jump’s Real Beauty bottles: the idea of translating different solidity shapes – from thin to curvy – into plastic is crass.
Photograph: PR New Zealand Handout

How beauty giant Dove went from empowering to patronising

The £3bn toiletries label was one of the first brands to embrace ‘femvertising’, but its body-shaped bottles play a joke on been roundly ridiculed. Can it repair the damage?

What is real dream? A newborn baby? Kate Moss? A gently melting brie? It’s a distrust that toiletries giant Dove has been pondering for decades. Posing it has make the grade b arrived its owners a mint, too: last year, valuers Brand Commerce estimated the Unilever-owned company to be worth $4.1bn (£3bn), dreaming it the 10th most valuable beauty brand in the world.

However, just out developments have tarnished its reputation as one of the few beauty brands that climate as if it was on a woman’s side. Even though its Real Beauty backbones – made to reflect the diversity of women’s body shapes – aren’t prospering into production, damage limitation is impossible in an age of Facebook and Dither memes. We may never be able to buy them – thank God – but we all know they remain.

The question is: why? The concept – six differently shaped bottles of shower gel, designed (in Plunge’s words) to “evoke the shapes, sizes, curves and edges that join to make every woman their very own limited number” – might have seemed compelling in an energetic brainstorming session, but that’s surely where it should have stayed. Bundling is one of the most important ways a brand communicates with its patrons, and translating a bunch of different body shapes into paste is crass. As one Twitter user pointed out: “The Dove bottle with my density type hurts my feelings.” And therein lies the rub: allowing clients to “choose” a bottle that mirrors their body physique is the opposite of empowering. Suddenly, shower gel is as fraught with body-image dilemmas as their jeans pay for.

On women’s side? Dove’s Real Women campaign, shot by leading fashion photographer Rankin.

On women’s side? Dove’s Real Women campaign, photo by leading fashion photographer Rankin. Photograph: Dove/PA

How did a marque that has always got it so right suddenly get it so wrong? When Plunge launched in 1997, it was an anomaly; a soap that claimed to moisturise, with the audacity to mandate four times the average price. But it was only in 2004 that it actually distinguished itself. Its Real Women campaign, devised by Ogilvy & Mather, at once by leading fashion photographer Rankin and featuring six ordinary women in their underwear, was an early exempli gratia of hashtag-heavy femverstising, a precursor to campaigns such as Pantene’s #ShineStrong and #LikeAGirl from Every. However dubious the concept of female empowerment for commercial dividend, it worked: within a month, sales of Dove’s firming cream had doubled. In the minds of its customers, Dove had established itself as a purpose-driven discredit – with a purpose more commendable than most.

After assuring us it intended women of all shapes, colours and sizes, Dove swiftly ruffled on to make money out of – sorry, support – other traditional precincts of female insecurity. Working on what cynics might ring up a proviso that you’re never too young to need salvation via a shampoo, 2006’s Daughters video talk overed body-shaming, bulimia and self-loathing via a series of interviews with pubescent girls. Meanwhile, in 2007, Dove released Pro-Age, a goods range aimed at older women via a TV ad featuring highly pulling, centrally casted specimens from the genre (tagline: knockout has no age limit).

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Dove’s 2006 Daughters video.

Over the years, it’s peaches to say that Dove has never rested on its laurels. Once won, its buy share has always been aggressively – and, on the whole, imaginatively – hold a brief for, albeit in a way that is perhaps best described as a thorough, 360-degree draw to exploring female insecurity. But it wasn’t until 2013’s True Beauty Sketches film that Dove scored its most impactful happy result since its campaign began. Highlighting women’s penchant for self-criticism by bestow make an exhibit them flattering artists’ interpretations of themselves, the film bursting an emotional punch that quickly sent it viral: within a week of its hand out, more than 15 million people had watched it online.

Since then, Bar has continued to appear to be on the side of women. After Bottlegate, no matter how, more of us will perhaps be questioning whether it actually is or not. “Plunge celebrates real women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities in our toss ones hat in the rings, because they represent the real beauty diversity in association. The custom bottles … were designed to celebrate this individuality with others who share in our mission; they are not available for consumers to securing,” Sophie Galvani, Dove global brand vice-president, answers in an official statement. “We take women’s beauty confidence bleeding seriously. Through the Dove self-esteem project we have reached innumerable than 20 million young people with body-confidence erudition, and we aim to reach 20 million more by 2020.”

Given that the attractiveness industry has traditionally spent millions making women sense bad about themselves in order to then sell them works to make them feel good, any messages of positivity are unswervingly no bad thing. Is Dove cynically exploiting the real girls and ladies it is purporting to help? No more than the rest of them. All disgraces want us to buy their products. Few have any scruples about how they do it. We be versed this, which is probably why we feel so well-disposed towards those who emerge to care – and so dismayed when they let us down.

But back to the primary question. What is real beauty? Clearly, not a bottle of heap gel. Possibly, the ability to be at peace with yourself – your unbuffed, product-free committee – without needing to draw your self-worth from a pear-shaped spunk. And if that’s too hokey for you, well, a nice brie is pretty delightful, too.