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Does Reality Sell Beauty?

When consumer-products giant Unilever asked 3,200 women around the world to describe their looks, most summed themselves up as "average," or "natural." Only 2% went so far as to call themselves "beautiful." Psychiatrists might have diagnosed a global inferiority complex, but brand stewards at Unilever sensed a marketing opportunity.

"Women are inundated by unattainable beauty stereotypes," says Fernando Acosta, a brand director for Dove soap in North America. "We understood then that we were in fertile territory."

The findings helped spark a groundbreaking global ad campaign for the company's soaps, shampoos and skin-firming creams. Dove's contrarian idea: to reassure women about their insecurities by showing them as they are, wrinkles, freckles, pregnant bellies and all. Taglines ask "Oversized or Outstanding?"; "Wrinkled or Wonderful?" Dove even has a Web site (campaignforrealbeauty.com) where visitors can view the ads and cast their votes.

The campaign, which originated in Europe before crossing the Atlantic late last year, has inspired a tide of publicity and discourse. Many women applaud the departure from typical beauty ads showing impossibly thin, young and airbrushed models. ("Awesome," says Tammy Richardson, a 37-year-old Boston lawyer.) Others are taken aback by the uber-real images. Blogger Kari Sullivan, 28 years old, says she is "horrified" by the idea of beauty ads "with women who look worse than I do."

The mixed reaction mirrors a broader debate in the fashion and beauty worlds: In a youth-obsessed but aging society, can marketers resonate with women by reflecting more true-to-life images? Or do women want products that promise to improve upon nature, even if the standard is unrealistic?

Experts are divided. "Women will respond very positively to a brand that makes the most of the good things they have, rather than a brand that compounds their insecurities," says Benoit Wiesser, a regional director at WPP Group's Ogilvy, the ad agency that created the Dove ads.

"To say that you're beautiful just the way you are, it's a warm, fuzzy feeling, but does it make the cash register ring?" says Mary Lou Quinlan, chief executive officer of Just Ask a Woman, a New York marketing consultancy. "Women are interested in outer beauty and change. Visually or verbally, [marketers] have to make a promise."

Companies as diverse as Unilever, Gap Inc. and Estée Lauder Cos. are confronting the issue, which is being magnified by a wave of demographic change. Nearly 40 million American women -- baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 -- are settling in to middle age, but they aren't going quietly. Appealing to women in this powerful consumer group means tapping into their still-got-it mind-set -- late motherhood, Pilates classes, Botox and all -- without going too far overboard.

"There's a fine line between denial and reality," says David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group, a fashion consulting firm. "For a boomer woman she's denying the reality of her age, but the reality is that she looks younger than women of her age than ever before."

Marketers are trying in earnest to straddle that ambiguous divide, and are coming up with different approaches. The trend toward showing more realistic images represents "an overwhelming explosion in the beauty and fashion market," says Lois Joy Johnson, beauty and fashion director of 40-plus targeted More magazine. Revlon Inc., for example, has added earthy actress Susan Sarandon, well into her 50s, to the company's cast of more youthful models. In ads for its boomer-oriented line, Nicole by Nicole Miller, J.C. Penney Co. is using a headshot of Ms. Miller, the veteran designer, as well as a young blonde who models the clothes.

"Women love looking at other women in their own demographic," says Ms. Johnson. "That's what they tell us. I'm tired of looking at women who can't afford the products and don't look like me."

This fall, Gap is set to roll out its Forth & Towne store concept, targeted to women over 35. It launches just a year and a half after several designers created moderately priced career lines for department stores. Many of those collections, intended as boomer magnets, still are struggling to woo women with the right mix of garments that are neither too racy nor too dull.

For its part, the Dove brand does boast some improved sales. In the first six months after the campaign's October U.S. launch, sales of its facial cleansers and soaps rose 2.8%, according to Information Resources Inc. (And on its Web site, more than twice as many voters find the models "wonderful" and "outstanding" as find them "wrinkled" and "oversized.")

Still, Dove has found that the same approach doesn't necessarily fly all around the world. One new body-lotion ad featuring women with scars resonated with European women but got mixed reviews in tests elsewhere. Unilever also decided not to use the body-weight theme in Asia or Argentina, where images of heavier women are considered a turn-off.

Realistic advertising also may work better with some income groups than others. Unilever came up with a special Dove campaign for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The ads, which run on the retailer's in-store television network, feature Wal-Mart employees. In one, a smiling worker named Diana says, "I'll see a picture of myself and I'll say, 'whoa, I'm a big girl.' I like being an Amazon. I feel strong and powerful."

"The products they're selling are mass market, so the [realistic] positioning makes sense," says Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine. "It pulls them away from the crowd. I don't think it would be effective if they were selling [premium] items. Christian Dior isn't going to show real women -- that is an aspirational brand, and it is priced aspirationally."

Indeed, some high-end marketers believe that too much realism can compromise their brands. Estée Lauder, for instance, used an over-40 model in 1999 when it introduced a firming product line called Resilience Lift. The concept worked at the time, says Peter Lichtenthal, Lauder's senior vice president for global marketing. But with anti-aging potions becoming popular even among thirty-something consumers, the company's strategy has changed. For a line called Perfectionist CP+ "we made decision to use [a younger model] for a product normally associated with older women," says Mr. Lichtenthal. "Women respond to the aspiration of young skin. How you feel on the inside is how you want to feel in the mirror."

Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard University and who helped compile the Dove research, sees a slightly less black-and-white picture. "I don't think the [Dove] campaign is totally about self-acceptance," says Ms. Etcoff, author of "Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty." "But women do want to be their best selves." Ms. Etcoff and Mr. Lichtenthal both plan to share their views and research on global beauty trends during a panel discussion today organized by the Fashion Group International, a nonprofit trade group.

As marketers find their way, some are discovering that their ads need only blush at the truth. "Our ad agency said that people think of themselves as a decade younger," says Mary Tilt, a Nicole Miller spokeswoman. "You don't want to use someone the actual age of the target audience, but someone who they identify with, who is actually quite younger."

Subtleties matter. Tone is everything. "Most women say they look better than they did at 25," says More's Ms. Johnson. "They just don't want to look like they are 25. And that's a big difference."

To illustrate the marketers' conundrum, Mr. Wolfe likes to beam a particular image on a screen when he lectures about fashion. It's a snug-fitting woman's jacket, perhaps a size six, and represents a key shape for spring. "This jacket is body-appropriate whether you're 60 or 16," says Mr. Wolfe. "The challenge for a store is 'how do we present this item when we have both customers coming through our door?' "

In the end, of course, marketers concede that advertising is a peculiar, inexact science. "I think people can get too much into the analysis," says designer Nicole Miller. "If it's the right thing, there doesn't need to be a big discussion. If they love it, they buy it."

 

Shelly Branch and Deborah Ball, The Wall Street Journal. May 19, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.

 

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