What’s this “Real Beauty Sketches” Dove commercial that everybody’s talking about?

It’s a Web-only commercial that made its debut in mid-April as part of Dove’s ongoing “Campaign for Real Beauty.” In the spot, which is presented in both three- and seven-minute versions, a forensic sketch artist draws several women, based only on their descriptions. (They’re concealed behind a screen.) Then he draws a different portrait of each woman, based on descriptions by relative strangers. The resulting sketches are displayed side by side; in all cases the portraits inspired by strangers are more flattering than the women’s own versions of themselves. The tagline reads: “You are more beautiful than you think.”


Has anyone watched it?

The three-minute version has been viewed (as of this writing) more than 26 million times on the Dove YouTube channel. The seven-minute version is up to 1.7 million views. “I’ve stopped counting,” says a very pleased Fernando Machado, global brand development vice president for Dove Skin, which is owned by Unilever. “Every single time we counted, it got outdated 30 minutes later. Let’s just say the numbers are incredibly positive.”

What’s the response been?

Mixed. Some seem to find the ads empowering, while others think they play into beauty stereotypes. AdWeek called it “one of the most original and touching experiments to come from the Campaign for Real Beauty in ages.” Suzanne Grayson, a longtime beauty-industry consultant, calls the commercial “brilliant” and “a real expression of the insecurity of so many women who tend to sell themselves short.” Slate, however, found the ad “cynical” and another example of Dove “using a faux representation of ‘real’ women.” Salon dismissed it as “pandering, soft-focus fake empowerment ads.” Jazz Brice, a 24-year-old blogger, wrote a fiery attack on the commercial that’s gone almost as viral as the ad itself. “When it comes to the diversity of the main participants,” she writes, “all four are Caucasian, three are blonde with blue eyes, all are thin, and all are young (the oldest appears to be 40).”

How do Dove customers feel about it?

Judging by Dove’s YouTube channel, the majority like it. “It’s overwhelmingly positive,” says Machado. “We have 90,000 likes and I think just 2000 dislikes. Which is a 45-to-1 ratio. If that applied to my personal life—if I had 45 people who liked me for every one who didn’t—I would be the happiest person.” On Dove’s Facebook page, comments about the video suggest that most find it uplifting and inspiring, but a few take the company to task. “This is a brilliant marketing campaign,” one female commenter observed. “But make no mistake it is carefully calculated to sell more products.” Another asked Dove to “stop pseudo-psychoanalyzing us in an attempt to make more profits for your soap products.”

Is Dove worried about the criticism?

Not really. Machado’s gut feeling about the campaign is “We hit the jackpot.” He’s aware of the ongoing debate online, but he claims he doesn’t follow it closely. As for criticism that the actresses featured in the ad are too thin, young, and attractive, he isn’t concerned. “I choose the women personally in casting,” he says. “And what I had in mind was, let’s find some women who’ll be able to speak at eye level with the viewer. Women who are real, who have a nice personality—who when they’re talking, I’d like to know more about them. If people think they’re beautiful? That’s the whole point of the ad, that people who are beautiful don’t realize that they’re beautiful.”

Has a Dove commercial ever come under fire like this before?

It has—and for another “Campaign for Real Beauty” ad. Dove began the campaign in 2004, created by advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather Brazil, with a series of TV, print, Web, and billboard ads featuring “real” women without model-thin bodies or excessive makeup. The campaign was initially hugely successful, by some accounts driving up sales for Dove’s products anywhere from 6 percent to 20 percent in just one year, resulting in estimated profits of more than $500 million. (A rep for Dove declined to comment on the company’s sales.) Then came a backlash, first by critics who pointed out that Unilever also owns and operates AXE, a brand of male grooming products that is advertised with scantily clad and anorexic-thin models. In 2008 digital artist Pascal Dangin revealed to the New Yorker that he had manipulated all the print ads for the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. It was a “challenge,” he said, “to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.” A few years later, a Craigslist casting call for the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign—looking for women with “flawless skin” and “nice bodies”—made the rounds online, embarrassing the company.

By 2011, MarketingWeek reported that Dove was ending the campaign entirely, focusing instead on a “less preachy” marketing approach. Saj-Nicole Joni, writing for Forbes, dismissed the campaign as “a cautionary tale of great cause marketing that peaked and then crashed.” And yet here we are in 2013, and Dove’s ad campaign that wouldn’t say die once again has the most talked about commercial on the Internet.

With all the attention surrounding the “Real Beauty Sketches,” will it help their sales or hurt Dove’s brand?

Marti Barletta, author of such books as PrimeTime Women: How to Win the Hearts, Minds, and Business of Boomer Big Spenders and Marketing to Women, thinks the future couldn’t be brighter. “Dove is so far ahead of most companies in terms of being in touch with women’s actual attitudes, emotions, and frustrations with the beauty industry in general,” she says. Even if their intentions aren’t pure, she still thinks it’s genius marketing. “Companies have to be—and are starting to become—more savvy about understanding the people they’re trying to sell to.” Consumers today are savvy, she says. They know they’re being sold a product. “But women support companies that go above and beyond the commercial motivations and try to make an effort to understand how they think and feel. There’s a lesson there that other companies would be well-served in paying close attention to.”

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)