Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ Campaign – Sincere or Cynical?

These days it can be hard to tell if companies are engaged in genuine good works and are genuinely transforming themselves to be more conscious or if it’s just a cynical marketing ploy that leaves people cynical about marketing. Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign hasn’t been without controversy. In this add they push further. What do you think? Authentic or ‘good washing’?

But before you decide – consider the fact that Dove is owned by Unilever. Who also owns Axe body spray. And the Axe commercials use the very same tactics decried by the Dove commercials. See the video below.

So, what does it mean for a company like Unilever to promote two contradictory messages at the same time?

And then there’s this from Greenpeace . . .

Today, we’re launching the next stage in our campaign to protect the rainforests of Indonesia from the expansion of the palm oil industry. Our volunteers, dressed as orang-utans, are currently climbing over the London headquarters of the company behind Dove, which uses palm oil as one of its ingredients.

Our latest research shows that Unilever, the makers of Dove, is buying palm oil from companies that are destroying valuable rainforest and peatland areas, which is bad news not only for the millions of people who depend on them for their way of life and endangered species such as the orang-utan, but also for the global climate.

Right now, four ‘orang-utans’ are perched on a balcony at Unilever’s headquarters in London, telling passers-by why Dove is responsible for the devastation happening in South East Asia. Down below on the road, a giant billboard mounted on a truck parked below apes (sorry) Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty advertising campaign, and huge speakers are playing jungle noises at top volume. Meanwhile, at a Unilever factory at Port Sunlight near Liverpool, sixty volunteers (many in orang-utan cosutmes) have overrun the premises, decorating the front entrace with a huge banner. The factory makes Persil, which also contains palm oil.

Write to Patrick Cescau, group chief executive, and tell Unilever to clean up its act.

Why Dove and Unilever? For a start, Unilever is one of the largest users of palm oil in the world, funnelling up to one in every 20 litres produced from Indonesia into some of the many well-known brands it owns. This one fact means Unilever has a huge influence on the way palm oil is made.

And being chair of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Unilever has even more clout. The RSPO is a group of retailers, manufacturers and suppliers whose aim is create standards for the production of sustainable palm oil. But as things are, it’s little more than a greenwashing operation because card-carrying members of the RSPO continue to be involved in the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests. The RSPO has developed a certification scheme, but as yet not a drop of certified oil is available, six years after the scheme was set up. Even when certified palm oil becomes available later this year, there is nothing to prevent certified palm oil being blended with non-certified palm oil. This will make it impossible for RSPO members to guarantee that their palm oil does not come from recently deforested areas. Just ask Unilever.

This was documented in the Cooking the Climate report we produced last November and Unilever featured prominently, but since then we’ve collected fresh evidence of Unilever’s role in deforestation. Our latest report, How Unilever’s Palm Oil Suppliers Are Burning Up Borneo, details how some of Unilever’s key palm oil suppliers – Sinar Mas, Wilmar, Sime Darby and IOI among them – are devastating forest and peatland areas in Central Kalimantan. Not only are millions of people who live in or rely on the forests for their survival being put at risk, but as these areas are destroyed many endangered species are at even greater risk of extinction, including Sumatran tigers, Javan rhinoceroses and orang-utans.

There are also devastating consequences for the climate. As the forests and tropical peatlands of Indonesia are destroyed and converted into oil palm plantations, huge volumes of greenhouse gases are released, accelerating climate change. Indonesia is the third largest emitter of these gases in the world, in large part due to the destruction of its forests at the hands of the palm oil industry.

This is not great going for a company that paints itself as green and responsible: Unilever’s website makes a great deal of its efforts to be both environmentally and socially responsible, but when it comes to palm oil the reality is very different. pressure the RSPO to also support a moratorium.

We want Unilever to clean up its act, not just with the palm oil it uses in Dove but in all its products. To start the ball rolling, we’ve devised a three-point action plan for Unilever to follow:

  1. support an immediate moratorium on the destruction of rainforest and peatland areas in Indonesia to grow palm oil;
  2. stop trading with palm oil suppliers who are involved in this destruction;

And then of course, there’s their use of animal testing.

And . . . there’s the use of toxic chemicals in their products.

But notice how good washing can work. You do lots of really bad things but try to hide them and then, very publicly, engage in a (sometimes legitimately) very good campaign. And it washes you clean of any negative perceptions and people think, ‘oh! what a good company. you shouldn’t criticize them – at least they’re trying . . .’

What do you think?


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About Tad

  • Corina

    Rad Tad.

  • Kim

    I see it as possibly meaning the the culture of the organization is starting to change and we are seeing the start of the transition. I love that Dove has created a self esteem program for young girls – that is a good thing. Cultural change happens slowly, and it has to start somewhere, so it is absolutely normal for a company – or an individual for that matter – to appear incongruent while evolving towards more conscious behaviours/expressions. The best way we can support the further evolution of organizations and people (like you and me :)) who are making gradual shifts is to acknowledge their efforts and the positive contributions they are making.
    I’m not suggesting to turn a blind eye on what is still being done that is more destructive, but we can’t turn a blind eye on the good either just because it isn’t all perfect yet.
    Thank you Tad for instigating the conversation – it takes courage and dedication to invite people to talk about what matter versus the weather of the day :)

  • Angie

    While i like the idea of Dove promoting self-esteem, i’ve always been distrustful of them. At least it got people thinking and talking. But of course they have an ulterior motive – sell their their toxic, tested-on-animals products. Unfortunately i’m not surprised they’re a Unilever co. It’s all about the bottom line.

  • I was at a cancer fundraiser a number of years ago and was horrified when I saw on the list of sponsors the name of a pesticide company. I thought, “How in THE HELL can anyone let that happen? And why isn’t anyone else disturbed by that?” I kinda feel the same way about the Dove campaign. That’s nice. The message is nice. But let’s face it, it’s all about the bottom line, isn’t it? And what a fabulous way to get out there and brand our young ladies. Clever. And when they see the Axe commercials? Won’t that just f- with their minds? “Which way do I go? Who do I believe, Mom?”

    What does it mean for a company to promote two contradictory messages at the same time? Greed and profit, Tad, my dear man. Let’s hit as many markets as we can, kinda like throwing out a massive fishing net into the ocean, and scoop up as much of everything as we can.

    there’s my cynical, anti-corporation sentiment for the day! :)

  • Tobacco company speaks out against smoking, but studies show that it still increases their bottom line. Same thing here.

  • Cadence

    I hear everything you’re saying and definitely see the hypocricy and negetive aspects of the company. However, being a young female, who’s curvy and struggled with body image my entire life….I’ll take any positive media out there! :)

  • Martina

    I agree. Companies that have been long corrupted and abusing other countries to make their products all in the name of profit, all of sudden start jumping on the environmental bandwagon hoping to erradicate all the damage they have done by trying to look good now. I just saw an ad for Cadbury and how they are using “fair trade chocolate”. How many years have they been using unfair trade chocolate to make their chocolate? It’s disgusting to see the lack of integrity corporations have. It’s like, “OH people are getting wise. We better change our tactics so we can keep selling our products.” Give me a freakin’ break. People wake up!!

  • I do my best to buy local or make stuff myself especially skincare products and cleaners.

    Dove also makes chocolates. I wonder if they use fair trade chocolate.


  • Karen

    Does Unilever own everything? It’s insidious and their evil marketing teams do a real head number on everyone… We’re supposed to teach our girls to be happy with who they are and our boys that women are objects to conquer en masse? Never mind the whole ingredients lists on their products… I don’t know what to think.

  • good commercial, bad company.

  • ‘good commercial. bad company.’ yes. super well said.

  • Thanks for the posts everyone! It’s hard to know what to think about these things. On one hand – great to support good strides being made – good to reinforce the good things. But, what if the good things are being used as misdirection to cover the bad things? I bet the women who run the Real Beauty campaign itself are actually beautiful people with good intentions – and trying to do good within the corporate structure of Unilever. Perhaps we need to do both – honour the progress but also keep pushing for deeper levels of integrity.

  • “Good washing” ( Thanks for the term Tad!) Is EVERYWHERE and is frustrating because it is like our culture is getting more “aware” of these hazards and companies like Dove, just insult the Eco-consumers intelligence. For example check out a Nestle Chocolate ( they use pal oil!) bars- full of nasty preservatives, being linked to carcinogens in the body, yet they are boosting their image by giving Healthy Living tips on the package! To think that they are actually improving their image of products that are actually just under Barely “safe toxic levels”…I hope there will be a day when we will have our own comedic program/forum that will point out these subtle ironies and oxymorons that we can laugh at them and give them no business and watch there companies go out of business! On a positive note has a good philosophy and way of exposure that convinces companies to change based on consumer drive power to purchase and invest in eco-friendly and PEOPLE friendly products!

  • Alison

    I think we need to spend a lot more energy applauding the things that are good, with gentleness and sincerity, and really be present with them.

    I just don’t see a benefit in responding to a positive action by saying, “Well, sure… you did this ONE GOOD THING, but you still do this other bad thing, and this other bad thing.” Can you imagine being in a relationship with someone who treated you like that? Personally, I would walk out. And this is no different. A perfect case study of why corporations hate activists and rarely want to collaborate with us.

    Bottom line, the Dove campaign is good for women and girls. Personally, I’m glad they are doing it. Anything else they could be doing is another conversation for another thread on another day and does not make this action less valuable.