From Reality TV to Reality Ads

Led by the Dove beauties campaign featuring real women rather than perfect models, these ads seem to be striking a chord with consumers

By Pallavi Gogoi

An odd thing happened at Ogilvy and Mather's Chicago office this spring. An emotional father called the ad agency's managing partner, Debora Boyda, thanking her for creating the Dove soap campaign that features decidedly ordinary-looking women in their underwear. Not skinny, beautiful models here. Just randomly selected women who tout their use of Dove soap.

The man's teenage daughter had just recovered from a four-year battle with anorexia and the grateful father wanted to stress how important he thought it was for ads to give the world other ideals of beauty rather than a size-2 blonde with high cheekbones. "That to me was the high point of what the ad achieved," says Boyda, who was part of the team at Ogilvy that created the ad.

In a world where reality TV increasingly trumps drama and sitcoms, where millions of viewers connect viscerally to ordinary folks performing as contestants or actors in their own drama, reality ads seem to be striking new chords. "Just like in reality TV, people relate to it because it's real," says Lindsey Stokes, one of the women in the Dove ads who in real life is a salesperson from Silver Spring, Md.


  Madison Avenue has even coined a phrase to describe the marketing technique -- "masstige" or prestige for the masses. Today, luxury brands increasingly are within reach of anyone who shops for, say, Isaac Mizrahi-designed apparel at Target (TGT ), or Karl Lagerfeld for H&M. The result: Rather than seeing designer clothes on models or fantasy images of the way they wish they looked, Americans increasingly view the products on their real selves.

"We have seen a dramatic change in what beauty means to people," says Beth Kaplan, executive vice-president and general merchandise manager at Bath & Body Works, who described the changes in brand building at a Women in Business Conference late last year in Wharton Business School. "It used to be all about the surface, what your face looked like. And if you asked people, 'Who is beautiful?' they would name models and movie stars. Now they will name their mom, their sister, their best friend. Beauty is all about the whole person." So for Kaplan, luxury means providing a shopping experience that caters to this new definition of beauty.

For years, ad makers often featured actors who looked like ordinary people. Now they really are real people. Posing in their white undergarments with smiles on their faces, the Dove women are everywhere -- splashed across billboards, in magazines, TV, and even sides of buses around the country. The ad has become a lightning rod in marketing circles, around the water cooler, and a debate topic in newspapers and magazines around the country.

"The fact is that it is a woman who looks like she could be my wife, and that has meaning for some," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a brand consulting firm.


  Others are employing a similar approach. High-end clothing chain Eileen Fisher has featured its own employees in its ads -- from its lawyers to account executives wearing its apparel. The company believes that its ads creates a message that customers can identify with, giving the brand a wider audience. "Consumers identify with real stories," says Alan Siegel, chairman of Siegel & Gale, a brand-consulting firm. Another example: Malia Mills swimwear shows women in various shapes in an ad titled: "Love thy differences."

How successful are these campaigns? Since Dove launched its ads in mid-June, it says traffic on the Web site has grown 200% and calls into consumer call center at Unilever (UN ), which owns Dove soap, have surged, too. At the same time at the $3 billion Dove brand, U.S. sales are logging in double-digit growth, says Ogilvy's Boyda.

American Apparel is expected to hit record sales this year with edgy ads featuring its young employees in various stages of undress (see BW Online, 8/11/05, "The Serious Cachet of 'Secret Brands'"). Not only have the ads become a hot topic of discussion on the Internet but people are buying American Apparel clothing to the tune of $250 million in sales last year.


  Of course, there is still and probably always will be a very strong market for ads with size-2 models. One look at any monthly issue of a womens' magazine will show that. It has taken Dove's "real beauty" campaign two years to truly catch on. Launched in 2004, it initially featured women with freckles and wrinkles, and asked questions like: "Withered or wonderful?"

In an electronic billboard in Toronto that featured a curvy woman, Dove asked "Fat or Fab?" and prompted people to vote. Fab initially surged ahead. But the billboard was taken down soon after fat pulled into the lead with 51% of the votes. Even now, the latest campaign has also spurred a trend where overweight attractive women are mockingly referred to as Dove beauties.

Even though such reality ads might not change mass perceptions of beauty, expect the trend to continue as they fuel sales and draw connections with people who see the ads.

The latest to join in: marketing giant Nike. In an ad that launched in early August, it has real women telling their stories of different parts of their bodies. One woman says about her rear: "My butt is big, so's my mother's butt, my grandmother's butt, and my grandmother's mother's butt. It's in the genes. So I joined a gym, and my butt got really toned. From what I understand it is secretly worshipped by the girls who hang around the butt machine..." Just do it.

Gogoi is a correspondent for BusinessWeek Online in New York