Skip to main content
persuasion notebook

Dove launches its latest online campaign.

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

Dove is messing with women's minds. But the brand is hoping to convince people that it's for a good reason.

The Unilever-owned beauty brand's latest online campaign, unveiled Wednesday, involves a psychological experiment that gauges how women's attitudes about themselves can be changed. Think of it as a beauty placebo.

A group of women in the Los Angeles area were asked to apply a patch called RB-X to their arms once a day for 15 days. They were told that the patch would make them feel more beautiful. Then they were asked to record their thoughts in a video diary.

Most of the participants were skeptical at first, but Dove's video shows them recording more positive thoughts as the experiment went on. One woman who had felt too self-conscious to go to the beach for three years decided to put on her bathing suit and make the visit. Others began talking in their diaries about feeling more confident and energized. The women talked about specific things such as their eyes or hair that they felt were particularly beautiful.

Dove's latest online campaign, unveiled Wednesday, involves a psychological experiment that gauges how women's attitudes about themselves can be changed. Think of it as a beauty placebo.

At the end of the experiment, the women were told that there was nothing in the patch. The new product they were supposedly testing was fake.

Unilever brought in Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist who studies body image issues, to help with the experiment.

"There is all this research about the power of suggestion ... but I didn't know if women were going to believe this, and if it was going to have an impact," Dr. Kearney-Cooke said in an interview. "...I was amazed."

The short "film" – as Dove calls its ads that focus on self-esteem and brand building as opposed to specific products – is an attempt by Dove to recreate the wild marketing success it clinched last year with another online video. Its "Real Beauty Sketches" film asked a forensic police artist to sketch women based on their descriptions of themselves, and then based on a stranger's description of them. It was meant to show how hard women are on themselves, when even strangers found flattering things to say about them. The emotional video shot to more than 100-million views in just a month, and has since become the most-watched ad ever on the Internet.

That kind of "viral" success online is a huge coup for a marketer. Companies know that consumers are inundated with advertising, particularly online. Good storytelling that can convince people to sit through an ad – or even share it with their friends – is incredibly valuable, because it means consumers may actually be digesting the brand's message as opposed to skipping over or ignoring it.

The current campaign is the largest global launch ever for Dove in terms of the number of countries - 58 - where it is being promoted.

But "Sketches," and Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign as a whole, have come under fire from critics who say that the ads simply reinforce the idea that a woman's self-worth is tied to her appearance.

"The way they look changes the way many women feel about themselves and the confidence they project," said Sharon MacLeod, vice president of personal care for North America at Unilever. She added that the company's research has shown that 60 per cent of girls have quit an activity because of how they felt about their appearance. "Would I love to say it shouldn't matter to women? The truth is, it does."

The marketing strategy for Dove is to attract viewers to its video by spreading a message that women can change their own perceptions of themselves and that "beauty is a state of mind."

It is why Dr. Kearney-Cooke decided to accept the consulting job on this project with Dove.

"My research on body image, I present to conferences and there might be 500 people there," she said. "But the Dove campaign can get this message out to millions."

While Dove got the attention of hundreds of millions with "Sketches," Unilever will be watching to see if this new message resonates with female consumers as well. Will viewers decide that these experiments on women are becoming manipulative? Or will they relate to the idea – which Dove has built its advertising on for more than a decade – that women need the help of a multinational brand to learn to love themselves? And finally, will any newfound self esteem also translate into a bit of love for the brand?

"We're constantly working at new and surprising ways to move women along in their personal journey," Ms. MacLeod said. "...It's a great way to talk to women."



Where do these "real women" participating in an advertising experiment come from?

Dove took out online ads looking for people to participate in a documentary. And it worked with a casting agency.

When Dove does casting calls like this, the company specifically looks for people who have never acted or modeled before.

Each of the women chosen to participate sat down with the psychologist for one-hour interviews about how they perceive themselves and how they feel about their beauty.

They were told that part of the documentary involved testing out a new product: the patch that would make them feel more beautiful.

Skeptical participants who asked how exactly the patch would do that and what was in it, were told that they would discuss those details at the end of the experiment.

After the patch was revealed as a placebo, the women were interviewed by the psychologist. Some were emotional; others said they were happy that their improved feelings of confidence came from within rather than from a patch.