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."
Even though consumers may not take note of the two brands' messages, one advertising expert says contradiction is inherent to the Dove campaign.
"They sell beauty products. And if you're going to do that and critique the industry at the same time, that's a difficult place to be in," says David Vinjamuri, an adjunct professor of marketing at NYU.
For its part, Dove believes that "profit and purpose can work well together" in the cause of boosting women's confidence, in Machado's words.
"Dove is committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety," he adds.
While Vinjamuri believes the ad is well done and the message is positive, he says the conflict of interest may dull Dove's affirming message.
"The message is that you can make yourself better in some way. If you're talking about soap to make yourself clean, that's one issue," he says. "[But] the foundation of the beauty message is that somehow you'll be better by improving your external appearance."
That may mean that Dove and Axe's underlying philosophies are not all that different. As they both sell soap, they also sell ideas about the importance of women's beauty—albeit different notions of what that looks like. Which may mean that the distance between "real women" and busty, bikini-clad ladies fawning over manly-scented men is not so far after all.
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Updated on 4/19/13: This article has been updated to include comment from Dove.