Charlotte Rogers: Avon’s ‘cellulite shaming’ US campaign is damaging to its global brand

As beauty giant Avon hits a bum note with its latest US campaign, a lack of joined up thinking could mean the damage will be felt over this side of the Atlantic too.

Avon-
Campaign imagery for Avon USA’s Smooth Moves anti-cellulite gel.

I think it’s fair to say that the unveiling last week of Gillette’s new campaign taking on toxic masculinity in the #MeToo era caused something of a stir. While some praised the brand for facing such a divisive issue head on and attempting to create meaningful change, others failed to understand why a razor brand felt it had the right to tell men where they were going wrong.

Needless to say the ad went viral, meaning that a campaign intended for the US market suddenly became a matter for debate around the world. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and Gillette’s campaign film has been viewed more than 25 million times in a week on YouTube, but if the message is negatively received surely the wider brand will be tainted by association?

A week on and another brand is under fire for letting down its loyal customer base. Cosmetics company Avon was slammed over the weekend for a “cellulite shaming” campaign that, far from celebrating body positivity, was accused of damaging self-esteem and promoting self-hate.

The ad for Avon USA’s #NakedProof Smooth Moves anti-cellulite gel – which promises a 98% improvement in just four weeks – claims that “dimples are cute on your face, not your thighs”.

The message seems hopelessly out of touch and depressing, especially given the anti-cellulite gel comes as part of a wider range of faux body positive products, including ‘Affirm Yourself’ (a firming body cream) and ‘End of the Line’ (stretch mark minimiser).

The campaign was picked up by actress and body positivity activist Jameela Jamil, who took to Twitter on Saturday to point out that in reality “EVERYONE has dimples on their thighs, I do, you do, and the CLOWNS at @Avon_UK certainly do”.

Tagging the Avon UK account in her tweet, Jamil described the adverts as shaming women about “age, gravity and cellulite”, making them fear things they then feel the need to fix. Her opinion made waves, with the tweet receiving more than 71,000 likes, 13,000 retweets and 1,700 comments to date.

The Avon USA advertising for Smooth Moves.
The Avon USA advertising for Smooth Moves.

Jamil, founder of the ‘I Weigh’ body positivity movement, then questioned another image of an Avon model with the tagline ‘Every body is beautiful’. The messaging suggested that, far from being inherently beautiful, women can only feel “confident and powerful 24/7” if they invest $18 in a tube of gel to reduce their cellulite, firm up their skin and smooth out their stretch marks.

“Every body is beautiful, unless they have any ‘flaws’ I guess. What a gross abuse of the body positive movement,” Jamil tweeted. “I want you all to look out for this constant manipulation. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere. You are constantly being manipulated to self-hate.”

Avon UK replied immediately, distancing itself from the backlash by insisting #NakedProof was not a UK campaign and would not feature in any of its marketing materials, but by then the damage was done.

Avon USA, by contrast, initially appeared not to take Jamil’s complaints all that seriously. The brand tweeted to explain that while Avon intended the campaign to be “lighthearted and fun”, it realised it had missed the mark. The implication being that Jamil – and all her supporters online – just missed their good intentions.

After sleeping on it the beauty giant decided to explicitly apologise for “messing up” on the Smooth Moves messaging. The @AvonInsider account added: “We want to let you know that we are working diligently to remove this messaging from our marketing materials moving forward. We’re on it. We love our community of women.”

Jameela-Jamil-tweet-Avon

Up until this point the cosmetics giant had done so much right. Avon describes its core business model as being focused on giving women the opportunity to earn an income on their own terms, develop business skills and be part of a wider global network.

The company prides itself on having an “unparalleled record of championing women”, characterised by the actions of the Avon Foundation for Women. The foundation even includes a global scholarship programme, which since 2012 has funded over 425 academic scholarships for women to the tune of $1.4m.

Furthermore, Avon is five years into a multi-year global women’s strategy, the goal being to raise the bar for female employees across its global organisation.

Only last week the company made its debut on the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI) of companies committed to transparency in gender reporting and advancing women’s equality. Avon achieved above benchmark scores across 67 measures analysing best practice for investing in women.

Here in the UK, Avon was an early investor in women’s sport through its tie-up with Liverpool Ladies FC. In 2017 the beauty brand became the first female focused brand to sign as a standalone shirt sponsor of a Women’s Super League (WSL) football team. Prior to that all WSL clubs had automatically shared the same sponsor as the men’s team.

READ MORE: Why brands are tapping into the power of alternative role models in women’s sport

The same year Avon went live with ‘I Can Be’, a campaign designed to challenge gender stereotypes on and off the pitch, which featured the #FiercelyFeminine film showing the Liverpool Ladies players unashamedly embracing their femininity. You can even buy Liverpool Ladies football shirts on the Avon website.

This debacle shows that joined up thinking across markets is key. If a brand has a unified message across its global footprint, as Avon claims to have, a campaign like this should never have slipped through the net. The worst part is that this bout of bad judgement from the US team impacts on perceptions in the UK, where the brand has been a leader in supporting women from sports to beauty.

While the Smooth Moves episode may not hurt Avon long term it does make you question how much the beauty giant really loves its community of women and ask how an idea as misjudged in tone, image and product development as this could actually make it to market if empowering women really is your raison d’être.

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