The real thing

A major cosmetics brand snubs glamorous models in favour of more ‘normal’ women, and a publisher launches a magazine devoted to ‘real’ stories. Merely unconnected commercial moves, or are these tactics symptomatic of a wider move towards ‘auth

The ongoing backlash against celebrities and marketing got off to a resounding start this year, with the launch of the latest stage in Dove’s “real beauty” poster campaign featuring “ordinary” women, and IPC’s announcement of a new real lives magazine, Pick Me Up.

The Dove campaign lambasts traditional women’s toiletries marketing for promoting unreal images of beauty, while Pick Me Up, with its real-life tales of the tragedies and triumphs of ordinary women, is being positioned as an antidote to the cult of celebrity that has gripped the media.

This has been billed as a time in which marketing will move away from creating idealised and unobtainable images of lives consumers could only dream of. Instead, marketing is now coming down to earth, becoming “responsible and authentic”, with success dependent on integrity, honesty and high moral standards. In this view, out would go manipulation and in would come a “new realism”, as David Boyle put it in his 2003 book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, which predicts a new era where consumers turn their backs on the fake, the faux and the aspirational.

Gastropubs, corporate social responsibility and real wood floors typify the realism movement, as do the downshifting of lifestyles, and brands such as Innocent Drinks, with its single minded “real fruit” positioning.

Other manifestations include organic foods, ethical sourcing of products and Waitrose’s naming of the source of products on its packaging. All this was foreshadowed by movements such as organic farming and the Campaign for Real Ale, launched in 1971.

No more thin pickings

Unilever has seized on the “real” trend to promote Dove, eschewing the stick-thin supermodels who are usually used to advertise beauty products in favour of ordinary women.

It has launched the Campaign for Real Beauty which “seeks to challenge today’s one dimensional and restrictive view of beauty by showing how beauty can come in many different shapes and sizes”. This builds on the poster ads for Dove Firming products, launched last April, which showed six “ordinary” women in their underwear. Dove claims sales of its firming product rose by 700 per cent after the campaign, and says the brand is now worth “single-digit millions” of pounds.

The new posters promoting the whole Dove brand feature six ordinary women, each of whom debunks a common beauty myth. “The advertising endeavours to spark a debate by challenging people’s perceptions about what constitutes beauty,” says a company statement. So 96-year-old Irene asks whether society will ever accept that old can be beautiful, while freckle-faced 22-year-old Leah asks if beautiful skin is always spotless. The Campaign for Real Beauty website invites women to cast their votes on each of the women’s questions (no prizes for guessing the right answers).

But some critics say Dove is creating a short-term diversionary illusion which could eventually damage the brand as it dawns on people that, while the campaign may raise interesting questions about the media’s portrayal of women, it avoids talking about the effectiveness of the product. And they say beauty advertising is aspirational for a reason – many women like to dream of themselves as glamorous, fully aware that it is just a fantasy.

The campaign dazzles the consumer with ethical questions and moral issues in order to divert attention from the fact that it has nothing new or interesting to say about the Dove range, say critics. It ignores the “moisturisation” message of previous campaigns, which focused on the fact that the products are one-quarter part moisturiser. This message has already been hammered home, so there is little mileage in repeating it.

The campaign is also paradoxical, say the dissenters: if beauty is inherent to the person, why use this product? Irene is 96 years young and looks great, but not because she has used Dove.

Dove’s PR efforts scored a major success last week, as the ads received favourable coverage in most of the national press, with Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times even encouraging people to buy Dove products. She enthused: “I so approve of its [Dove’s] marketing strategy that I am keen to reward it.”

But one Dove rival wonders: “How long-term is this sort of idea? My feeling is that without some significant aspirational content it will not work for very long. Women will always want to feel there is a dream and aspire beyond the reality of what their bodies look like. Unilever will struggle to keep this campaign going.”

Dove brand manager Abigail Storms responds: “It is sustainable and the plan is for the campaign to be there for the long term. Do women really want this? The response we are getting is: ‘Yes, we are ready for it.’ Some people will still buy into fantasy with different brands, but for a certain group of women, this is what they have been asking for and it has broader social implications.”

She accepts that more work needs to be done on explaining the product benefits. “This campaign is about feeling an affinity to the brand, but we need to reassure people the products are delivering. That would be done through separate category advertising,” she says. “There are plenty of new things to come – this is a start to the year and is giving a brand message.”

She quotes figures showing Dove’s total retail sales in the UK, in the 52 weeks to the end of November, as £120m, according to IRI – growth of nine per cent on the year.

Exploding the myths

Traditional beauty advertising creates the myth that buying a product helps the buyer realise her dreams of beauty, however unrealistic. The Dove campaign suggests that buying one of its products can help to overcome society’s prejudices and realise another, more “real”, beauty dream. The question is: how many women are ready for this new cult of realism?

Meanwhile, IPC believes that after three years in which celebrity magazines have boomed, the next big trend lies in the real lives sector, hence this week’s launch of Pick Me Up.

Total circulation in the weekly magazine market has risen by 13.2 per cent over the past three years, much of it driven by the launch of celebrity titles such as Closer, New!, Star and Reveal, which sit alongside existing titles Hello!, Now, OK! and Heat. The real lives sector, which includes IPC’s Chat and H Bauer’s That’s Life and Take a Break, has grown at a slower rate, underperforming the weeklies market, with sales up 8.5 per cent on the same period three years ago. IPC thinks Pick Me Up, which has a younger feel and is more humorous and modern than existing real-life titles, will bring innovation to the sector.

June Smith-Sheppard, editor of Chat and launch editor of Pick Me Up, thinks a significant number of women are turned off by celebrity titles. “A lot of women prefer to read about real people they empathise with rather than celebrities, who lead a way of life that is just ridiculous. It is not to do with social class: these magazines really touch you.” She says Chat – which accounts for three-quarters of the growth in the real-life weeklies sector – has increased reader loyalty and persuaded women to buy the magazine more often.

Some observers wonder whether Pick Me Up will merely poach sales from existing titles, but Smith-Sheppard maintains it will be an additional purchase for women who enjoy reading real-life stories. Its 60p cover price is lower than other titles, so it is more likely to be an add-on purchase. She adds: “We hope people will come in who haven’t been attracted by the three existing titles. It is a completely different look too, presenting things in a very different way.”

The success or otherwise of Dove and Pick Me Up will provide evidence of how far the trend to authenticity will go and whether it is a minor backlash or a new mass movement. As Mark Rodgers, insight director of research company Pearlfisher, warns: “We want truth and honesty, but we don’t always want it right between the eyes.”

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