Do Dove and Axe Sell the Same Message?

Dove's feel-good campaign is a lesson in the trickiness of branding.


An image from Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" advertisements. Critics say the goodwill it earns its parent company Unilever is negated in part by sexualized ads for its Axe brand.

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If your Facebook feed hasn't been taken over by the feel-good viral video of the moment, don't worry, it's coming. The newest installation in Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" already has 7.4 million views on YouTube.

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Dove continues its campaign to bolster women's self esteem, yet it finds itself continually besieged by questions about internal contradictions. Many have pointed out for years that Dove's message of promoting women's body images conflicts with ads from Axe, a male-oriented toiletry brand owned by Dove's parent company, Unilever. In addition, critics say that Dove's ads contradict themselves, taking aim at the beauty industry while shilling beauty products.

Dove's latest ad is a three-minute video showing a succession of women sitting behind a curtain, describing themselves to a sketch artist. The women use unflattering language, listing traits like protruding chins, big foreheads and fat faces, while the sketch artist dutifully draws those imperfections. Then the sketch artist gets other people—both men and women—to describe the women in question. These descriptions, as presented in the video, are clearly meant to be seen as much more complimentary: "Cute nose," says one woman of one of the subjects. "She was thin," says another woman. In the end, the subjects are visibly moved by the differences between the pictures made from their own descriptions and the pictures drawn from other people's descriptions.

This type of ad has become a trademark of sorts for the brand, and its uplifting message has earned it high praise from many. Dove launched its "Campaign for Real Beauty" in 2004, when it released ads depicting women who do not fit the conventional, slender model mold. In 2006, Dove also started a Self-Esteem Fund, aimed at helping women feel better about their looks.

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But ever since those ads appeared, ad critics and consumers have been wondering about how Unilever squares this advertising with advertising for Axe, whose overtly sexual ads often feature scantily clad, conventionally beautiful women who are seduced by men using Axe products. "How could the same company that launched Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, celebrating women's natural appearance over media stereotypes, be behind the arguably degrading depictions of females in ads for Axe?" asked marketing experts from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management in a 2012 case study.

Dove responds to these criticisms by noting that each Unilever brand's advertising efforts "are tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience," as Dove Skin Vice President Fernando Machado writes in an email to U.S. News.

However, while Dove and Axe do have profoundly different ad strategies, Machado also says that Axe ads, like Dove's, aim at consumers' self esteem: "Young men, like women, frequently suffer from poor self-esteem, lack of confidence and poor body image. Our advertising is primarily designed to give them a boost of confidence." He also emphasizes that Axe ads are intended as being "tongue-in-cheek."

Amid a bevy of articles praising the sketch-artist ad, the criticism leveled at Axe has popped up in several articles—Huffington Post and Canada's Globe and Mail both already noted the connection. Unilever did not initially respond to U.S. News's requests for comment.

Some customers have also latched onto Unilever's Dove-Axe contradiction. In their 2012 case study, the Kellogg professors found "an increase in consumer complaints about the Dove-manufacturer's tacit support" of Axe.Still, it's altogether likely that Unilever strategizes to keep those complaints to a minimum. Consumers who do not actively seek to learn about the connection generally do not know about it. When that happens, it's an intentional move on the part of the conglomerate behind the brands, says one marketing expert.

"Unilever is famously a house of brands and not a branded house," says Barbara Kahn, a professor at Wharton Business School and author of Global Brand Power. "It's costly to do that, because you have to build up each brand name independently."

Updated on 4/19/13: This article has been updated to include comment from Dove.